Those that have been watching the growth of the craft beer/microbrewery movement this last decade with a diligent eye know that Big Brewing has done its best to steal back at least a portion of what it’s lost to the little guys—mostly by screwing with the less-than-diligent consumer. The A-B family of brands now includes lines like Green Valley Brewing Company (the name Anheuser-Bush makes no appearance on those bottle labels), Stella Artois and Kirin Ichiban (no, Kirin is not an import if you are American), as well as having their hands stuck in the cookie jars of Red Hook Brewing, Goose Island Brewery and Alexander Keith’s “Nova Scotia Style”.
With about 3000 breweries in the US now producing tens of thousands of beers, fighting successfully for tap space in bars is about as easy as luring an order of nuns into a gang bang. Of course, there will always be bars that prefer stocking the piss-water that non-demanding customers can chug on the cheap. The places where Shock Top and Blue Moon are viewed as craft offerings. The places where the beer is served ice cold so you can’t tell how shitty it actually tastes. The places where, if forced to patronize, I order a bourbon. And while we’d like to believe that other, more discriminating “craft beer bars” opt for local, seasonal and small-scale brews whenever possible, the reality isn’t always as romantic as the fairytale.
A couple of weeks ago Dann Paquette, co-founder and brewer for Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project in Massachusetts, became a Tweeting whistleblower. Under the brewery’s handle, Paquette pulled the wizard’s curtain back and told Twitterville that Boston is a “pay to play town and we’re often shut out for draft lines along with many beers you may love.” Much like the payola that ruled our radio airwaves in the 50s, Paquette called out the industry for some very illegal “pay to play” hustling—breweries and distributors bribing bars to stock their beers and squeeze out the competition. Paquette railed, “Since I’ve started as a brewer in 1992 it has been a given in Boston that beer lines were for sale.” It certainly isn’t new, and it certainly doesn’t end in Beantown. In 2010, a Crain’s investigation found that a trendy Chicago hotel bar had been taking payouts and other bribes from a powerful MillerCoors distributor. Deb Carey of New Glarus Brewing went so far as to call the city of Chicago “a whores’ market,” noting, “Everyone has a hand out and everyone wants some cash, (free) beer or a discount.”
And sometimes it isn’t cash, but merchandise, that entices a pub. Glassware, grills, coasters, signage, tickets to next week’s big game, etc. that boxes out the small brewery. The pathetic truth, however, is that what was regarded as illegal and reprehensible in the industry back in the 70s is now a fucking business model. The laws may remain in place to “protect free trade” but feds are busy fighting much larger crimes…like keeping absinthe out of US consumers’ hands for nearly a century. And lest you look at Paquette as a whiner who didn’t get his beer on someone’s tap and decided to point tantrum-aimed fingers at innocents that simply didn’t like his beer, others like Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Company have been fighting the same bullshit: “We were supposed to have our event there [undisclosed locale in Chicago] and at the last minute they said, here’s what you need to do. You need to give us X, Y and Z free and discounted in order to come here. Not only were we not able to comply because that’s against our standards (and against IL law, which we respect and follow), we were kicked out of their bar altogether, off all their taps.”
Put aside the fact that it’s illegal (particularly since I know that none of my readership is beyond fracturing a law or two). Even if microbreweries were willing to throw legality and morality aside to gain access to a handle, they simply can’t afford to out-spend Big Brewing, so they continue to be what punk and heavy metal have always been to mainstream music—a craft seldom appreciated by the lulled, complacent masses who just want some background noise, be it in their ears or on their palate. Do your beer-drinking soul a favor and simply stop giving your business to bars that serve swill. Buy a six pack or two of some local quality suds, take them home, crack one open, put on some Black Flag and raise a middle finger in the general direction of St. Louis, MO.