Back in October, well before this blog launched, Dann Paquette from Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project went on a tear via Twitter about Boston being a ‘pay to play’ city when it comes to beer distribution.
He accused bars and beer distributors alike of requiring cash payments in order to have a draft line or beer provided for sale in their establishment.
This was met with skepticism, shock, and unfortunately some people shrugging their shoulders and proclaiming that this is just ‘the way it is’. In particular the Beer Advocate community had a lot to say about these allegations and what they may or may not mean to the beer scene in bean town.
That however was back in October, and the fervor seemed to die down since then. It seems that while the court of public opinion rested on the topic the state began quietly investigating.
Fast forward to today and the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission have charged Craft Beer Guild LLC with “violating a state rule against offering inducements to retailers to stock its products over those of competitors”.
Admittedly this sounds pretty serious, but what does this mean to craft beer drinkers like you and I? Well, firstly it means that the playing ground is not equal for each brewer, which I have an immediate problem with.
Small brewers rely on exposure like you and I rely on a cold IPA on a hot summer day. They often sell direct to consumers at their brewery, will bring their beer with them to tastings or events and try to get as many people as they can to consume it and decide they want more. Having their beer on draft at a well occupied bar is a dream to them — it means so much potential exposure that it can pave the next steps that will lead them to a bigger brewery.
So say you discover one of these small brewers at a festival, you love their beer and you want to support them as much as possible. You head to the brewery when you can, but what you really want is greater access to their product.
Trying to increase their access to consumers can be a big problem for them in a pay to play system, because any bar with a decent amount of patrons can easily demand money up front to put them on their draft line. Your demand, their quality, these mean next to nothing in this system. Only who pays to play.
This same system exists for retail store shelving as well. Distributors like Craft Beer Guild LLC can sweeten the deal for individual stores to only sell their brewers beers; the ones who have paid for the privilege of being sold.
That can make it extremely difficult for that small brewery to break on through to the masses, and potentially some great beer can remain unknown. All because people just can’t get enough money!
Now maybe this whole thing isn’t a big deal. Maybe as some people have stated this is just how it works. A lot of people have compared this to big names like Coke and Pepsi paying grocery stores to have end of aisle displays for their product. If Pepsi wants to give Big Y some money to have a big ole Super Bowl display at the end of an aisle I have no problem with that.
Now if Pepsi wanted to give Big Y some money to ensure that Bottle Muse Craft Cola isn’t sold in their store and only Pepsi is, I have a big problem with that. The example prior is merely leveraging your position among your competitors. The latter example is barring their ability to even compete.
I don’t want to jump to too many conclusions here, the information coming out about exactly what went down is not extensive yet. I am however reminded of Net Neutrality when I hear about this and that troubles me greatly.
Good beer polices itself and customers can determine with their dollar what they want on a draft line or on the shelves. When you get into these pay to play antics you wind up with only Yuengling on your ‘craft beer’ section of your menu.
And no one wants that.