Beer Laws and Craft Beer’s Struggle For Exposure

With the recent craft beer boom taking place in America, it’s great to see the “little guys” getting the respect and notice they deserve. Their hard work and dedication to producing a product of better quality, taste, and creativity was done for us, the beer enthusiast. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a world where so many options are abundant and plentiful.

Just as important as the respect and notice is the fact that craft beer is getting a better opportunity to reach consumers than in year’s past. Ultimately, we have the rise in consumer demand to thank, as that demand worked its way through the proper channels and opened up the floodgates. As people started demanding more from their beer, or sought a product similar to what they were brewing in their own homes, more locales started to realize a basic offering of taps pouring the same old yellow beer of the mass-producers simply wouldn’t cut it anymore.

When I say the “proper channels,” I’m referring to the parties, people, checks and balances involved in getting a beer from Point A to Point B, which is from a brewery to your hands. It’s not as simple as just bellying up to the bar and asking for your favorite brew or picking up a case on your way home from work. More often than not, there was a great deal of effort and struggle that allowed you to enjoy that frothy libation…especially if that libation is of the craft variety.

As I lightly scratch the surface of this subject, please be advised there is absolutely no way I could cover the entire scope of United States beer laws and regulations in a single blog post. Nor would you want to take the time to read the subsequent dissertation it would require to fully dive into this subject. Heck, even after that much explanation, you’d be left scratching your head. My goal is to bring to light some simple truths in regards to how we get the beer we love because, based on some conversations I’ve had recently, many people don’t know the struggle smaller breweries have gone through to expose their product to the public.

Prohibition RepealedWhen Prohibition was repealed in 1933, a three-tier system was put in place in an effort to govern the distribution of alcohol and avoid the tomfoolery that led to Prohibition in the first place. Each state was given the freedom to regulate alcohol on their own under the 21st Amendment, and the goal of each state was to levy taxes against those who produced the adult beverages. Because each state had free reign to govern as they saw fit, it’s led to tremendous differences in laws state-to-state…thus explaining why a single blog post can do no justice to this subject.

The three-tier system basically works as such: A brewery (producer) must get their beer to a distributor/wholesaler (middle man) who then gets that beer onto the shelves of grocery stores, bodegas, and into bars, restaurants, bottle shops, etc. This means a brewery can’t just bottle a beer and sell it directly to the consumer. However, there are exceptions to this, such as the case of a brewpub, which produces and sells their beer on the premises, thus eliminating the need for a wholesaler. Also, many microbrewery start-up sell their beer on premises only via pints for consumption in-house or growler (64oz. resealable jugs) fills to go.

Having lived in Pennsylvania my whole life, a state famously known for stringent beer laws, I’ve seen the inconvenience placed on beer consumers over the years. For the longest time, you could only get beer from a distributor, by the case, or six packs from a bar with a big markup. Grocery stores did not sell beer, and no purveyor of alcoholic beverages, including wine and spirits, were open for business on Sundays. The only place to get beer on a Sunday was to find an open bar and, as I mentioned, pay a big markup. It forced us to plan accordingly for Sunday picnics, but exemplified the complexity of these laws in our state.

Only within the last decade have things loosened up. More six-pack shops have become prevalent, grocery stores began selling beer, and the distributors and liquor stores are open for short periods on Sundays. It’s made life a little easier to obtain drinks of choice, and undoubtedly has generated more revenue for Pennsylvania.

With laws varying state to state, there’s one commonality found amongst them all: the influence of the big guys. The Anheuser-Busch InBevs and MillerCoors of the world are all about maintaining as much of the US beer market as possible, laws not withstanding. They have the capital and political backing necessary to swing a lot of influence, thus keeping the wholesalers championing their mass-produced beer water. This keeps the store shelves fully stocked with their “varieties” of beer (varieties is a loose term, typically referring to the same beer available in packs of 6, 12, cans, bottles, etc) and their offerings always on tap at your favorite hangout.

Grocery Store Beer AisleThe plethora of packaging options made it hard for independent breweries to get themselves on the shelves and thus, into your hands. Despite owning the majority of the market, the big guys know a legitimate threat when they see one and will utilize their sizable EVERYTHING in an attempt to squash that threat. It explains why they try to carbon-copy, in a mass-produced fashion that lacks the natural ingredients found in artisanal beers, craft beer styles to entice the consumer with a cheaper price tag. It also explains why they try to monopolize shelf space or act like the bully on the playground picking on the little guy by threatening legal action over nonsensical subjects.

For years, it was difficult for the smaller breweries to get their products on the truck that transported their beer to the retail outlets. They couldn’t go direct to the consumer because of the laws and had to “fall in line” against the big guys when it came to distribution. Victory in this battle seemed unattainable.

Thankfully, with the rise of craft beer and the overwhelming consumer demand for something better and different, the independents are starting to get the notoriety they deserve. They’ve earned the respect of the consumer, the stores who sell it, the wholesalers who distribute it, and (whether they’ll admit it or not), big beer. The fact that big beer sales have flatlined or dropped, while craft beer has experienced significant growth, shows that even laws sprinkled with influence can’t keep a good thing down.

The beer laws and regulations may be complicated, but they’re necessary. Without regulation, it would be all-our anarchy and, without question, a dirty game. However, it’s important to realize the David v. Goliate-esque battle craft and microbreweries fought, and continue to fight to this day, to get the exposure they deserve. When you sip, savor, and let out that emphatic “aaaaah” the next time you drink your favorite craft beer, savor it a little more knowing the struggle behind putting it at arm’s length.





Jason Cercone

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