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Your Beermonger: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

By Nick Anderson - ARLNow.com

Friday - 3/7/2014, 2:30pm  ET

Your Beermonger logo

Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).

“It’s not that easy to find people who know what you need done. But that’s what we’re doing, moving in a direction that will allow us to increase production if we wanted to. And I don’t actually want to. I don’t want to be a larger brewer. I just sort of want to build a playground…”

“I just feel like I’m managing chaos all the time.”

“‘Why don’t you just move into an industrial park? Why don’t you grow? You guys could sell so much beer.’ They come from the point of view that business has a responsibility to meet their desires as opposed to business having a responsibility to create a positive-feedback loop that meets its own desires.”

“From day one I’ve been saying that we are part of a neo-American ideal, which is the opposite of infinite, boundless growth.”

–Shaun Hill, Hill Farmstead, Vanity Fair.

“’People can’t understand why we don’t want to grow our brewery,’ she said, ‘That’s the American way.’”

“We built what we could afford … we didn’t go beyond our means at the time. With hindsight, yeah it would be nice to have room for another tank or something but at the same time, (there is) the comfort level, the financial comfort level. We knew exactly where we needed to be.”

“I cannot force a retailer to charge a certain price, but we can certainly not sell them beer anymore…”

Natalie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing Company, The Press Democrat.

A short column this week, because with a topic like this, a high word counts only lead to trouble.

It’s a new week, so there’s another “controversy” in craft beer — and this time, our area is involved! Bourbon DC held an event this past Tuesday night featuring the beers of Hill Farmstead from Vermont. Hill Farmstead beers are currently considered to be some of the best in the world (I couldn’t say, as I’ve never tried any of them), are notoriously hard to get a hold of, and have no distribution in our area.

Bourbon took advantage — with no malice or harm intended, it should be said — of D.C. laws that allow retailers/restaurants/bars to “direct import” beers that have no wholesale representation as long as the appropriate import/sales taxes are paid. Shaun Hill got word of the event on Twitter and was none too pleased with what he saw as his beers being “smuggled” into the District. This, in turn, set off round number who-the-hell-is-keeping-count-anymore of the classic “It’s legal so it’s OK”/”Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” craft beer debate created by D.C.’s unique alcohol laws.

It’s easy to dismiss complaints from brewers like Hill and others who have spent lots of time and energy shutting down sales of their beers on eBay, Craigslist, and at retail in markets they have not entered into agreements to be distributed in. It’s easy to say business is business, and that there are worse things for brewers to deal with than demand for their product.

But all too often, that’s not what is said. What is said by beer fans is said in angry, vitriolic screeds in forum posts or social media about people being overrated, whiny, snobbish, and worse — all the while wondering why these overrated whiny snobs won’t sell their beers to us.

Not all criticism is obscene or uncalled for, of course, and not every brewery objection comes from a humble, noble commitment to their “art.” Just do a basic web search and read some of the complaints from beer enthusiasts about breweries they can’t get in their area; then re-read the quotes above and the stories they come from. You may not agree with Shaun or Vinny and Natalie Cilurzo’s business philosophies, but do they sound unreasonable?

I’d posit that there is a way to handle the direct-import possibilities of D.C. that works for everyone: by building personal relationships with breweries, and respecting the wishes of those who don’t want to see their wares presented in a way they feel doesn’t allow them to make their best impression — even if those wishes have no basis in reality at all.

You can bring whatever you want into D.C.; it doesn’t advance the cause of the D.C. area in the greater beer community to do so, nor does it encourage anyone to establish distribution here. I’m already hearing rumors of world-class breweries killing bottle sales in various retail markets (and in one case the entire U.S.) because of illegal online sales and to a lesser extent incident like the one this week — there’s no need for the D.C.-area beer community to burn bridges before they’re built. Just my opinion.

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