Filmmaking, Writing, Beer, Insularity, History, and Other Topics More-Or-Less Related to “Beer Wars,” Part 12

Part 1 — Part 2 — Part 3 — Part 4 — Part 5 — Part 6 — Part 7

Part 8 — Part 9 — Part 10 — Part 11 — Part 12 — Part 13

NOTE: When I moved to a new site, this “Beer Wars” series was mangled/destroyed during the move. I’ve reconstructed it by copying/pasting another copy of the original posts. I also lost the comments in their original form. I’ve copied/pasted the comments, but had to do so under my own name. So although it looks as though I’m the only commenter, I’m not. In each case, I’ve identified the original commenter.

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Oh, hooray! I’m finally to the point that I wanted to make during the panel discussion after “Beer Wars.” Finally! How long has it taken me? (*1)

Thanks to post-Prohibition laws, alcohol manufacturers could no longer sell their products directly to retailers or consumers. Brewers, for example, had to sell their beer to a middleman, who then re-sold it to a retailer (like a grocery store or tavern). Thus the 3-tiers:

  • the brewer.
  • the wholesaler (also called the distributor).
  • the retailer (eg, a tavern, grocery, or convenience store where people buy alcohol).

Over time the wholesalers have become powerful because they control access to store shelves and tavern taps. This makes it difficult for small beermakers like Sam and Rhonda to get their beer into consumers’ hands.

Sam, for example, has to persuade a wholesaler to handle his beer and place it on store shelves. If he can’t make a deal, he can’t sell much beer. (Obviously he’s made a lot of deals with distributors. But not all beermakers can say the same.)

The beer people on the panel argued that this means that wholesalers can and do prevent Americans from enjoying “real” beer. That Big Brewers and their evil sidekicks, the wholesalers, have duped Americans into drinking “bad” beer, and thereby prevent the  good guys —  the Real Brewers — from selling real beer.

I don’t deny that the wholesalers have power. I discussed this in my book. But I disagree about the problem that craft brewers face, and I think critics of the 3-tier system are confusing the messenger with the message, or the symptom with the disease.

In this case, the 3-tier system is a symptom of a deep-rooted disease: A national mindset that demonizes alcohol and infantalizes drinking. The three-tier system is the messenger conveying a single, powerful message: Booze is bad. People can’t be trusted to make decisions on their own. The 3-tier system reinforces that message, as do Sunday drinking laws, state-owned liquor stores, and all the other lunacy that prevents Americans from thinking of alcohol consumption as a normal accompaniment to daily life.

In my opinion, the 3-tier system and the Big Brewers don’t explain why Americans drink bad beer. We drink bad beer because  we don’t respect alcohol, and as a rule, human beings dismiss and denigrate things they don’t respect. We don’t drink bad beer because of corporate advertising that focuses on large-breasted women and farting Clydesdales. We buy into that advertising because it reinforces our mindset: Booze is bad, it’s not to be taken seriously. Drinking is shameful, juvenile behavior.

I know that many people, especially in the craft brewing industry, think ending the 3-tier system will solve all their problems. It won’t. Take away the distributors — and we’ll still be saddled with a national drinking culture that infantalizes drinking and demonizes alcohol.

Put another way: craft brewers don’t have trouble getting their message, and their beer, across to Americans because of evil corporate giants and distributors. They have trouble getting their message across because that message — beer is a sophisticated. complex beverage that should be treated with respect — flies in the face of prevailing wisdom.

Next: Yes, there is hope!

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*1: Yes, I know: Too long. But this is a prime example of why the “sound bite” era is bad for critical thinking: it’s difficult to tackle complex issues in two-minute sound bites or half hour panels. Believe me, every person on the “Beer Wars” panel wanted to discuss and explain in greater detail and complexity.

9 thoughts on “Filmmaking, Writing, Beer, Insularity, History, and Other Topics More-Or-Less Related to “Beer Wars,” Part 12

  1. This comment was originally posted by Brillo:I know that there are a few exceptions, but by an large, aren’t the truly little guys (under 15000 barrels per year) allowed to distribute on their own. In many states, they can sell retail as well. It seems like more and more states are enacting legislation that helps out the small brewers while leaving the 3-tier system in place for the behemoths.Excellent point about the infantilization/demonification of alcohol. I want to lose my mind every time I get crazy looks from my co-workers when I drink a beer with lunch.

  2. From me: Laws are changing — slowly and sporadically. But we’re a long way from un-demonizing alcohol and from creating a coherent set of laws that don’t hinder alcohol manufacture and sale.And to your point about lunch: exactly! When I give talks about alcohol, I always tell the audience to try that experiment. Order a beer or glass of wine at lunch and watch your tablemates’ reaction. A lot of winking and elbow-nudging will ensue, along with comments like “Guess you’re not gonna get much work done this afternoon,” because of course we can’t WORK and DRINK, too, doncha know.

  3. Also from me:Forgot to say: even if tiny brewers could distribute directly (and I don’t know if they can), it doesn’t follow that they’ll be able to persuade grocery stores or taverns to carry their beer. There’s only so much space on the shelf.

  4. This was originally posted by Sean Lilly Wilson of Fullsteam Brewing in Raleigh, North Carolina:Great post, Maureen. This here is the nugget of the century. Granted, it’s a young century, but it’s a really tasty nugget:“We drink bad beer because we don’t respect alcohol, and as a rule, human beings dismiss and denigrate things they don’t respect.”Just this week, the North Carolina county I live in legalized liquor-by-the-drink. The bill’s detractors — at least its most vocal opponents — regularly referred to the pro-drinks/pro-consumer choice side as “drunks.”It’s not their rhetoric that surprised me; it was the casual acceptance of this term from the pro-liquor-by-the-drink side that got me.The erosion of Prohibition-era laws is only partial victory. True victory is when we finally break away from the language, rhetoric, and smug self-satisfaction of the far-too-long “demon rum” era. Find another Darth Vader, America. Alcohol ain’t it anymore.Incidentally, Pop The Cap NC’s biggest opposition was the Christian Action League, which (as I’m sure you know) was first formed as the Anti-Saloon League.

  5. This was originally posted by Stan Hieronymus who blogs at appellationbeer.comI’m a little disappointed to see you use the term “bad beer.” Granted I prefer beer with more flavor than 90-plus percent of what is sold. And, in fact, there are flavors in them that I don’t like.But I find it much easier to call some beers better – or to follow Greg Koch’s suggestion to demand great beer – than call well-made beers bad.

  6. This was originally posted by Dave Divelbiss (aka Loyal Reader Dave):i dunno bud light is pretty bad [added after thought and well made?]and corona is positively crap, or does that not count HA!dave

  7. Posted by me:Stan, I’m using the term “bad” because it’s one that got used over and over and over again during “Beer Wars,” as well as in the panel discussion that followed.Yes, many beer geeks do follow Greg’s lead — demand great beer — but just as many of them use the term “bad beer.” Or swill. Or yellow swill.Me? I think a “bad” beer is in the eyes of the beholder. A skunky beer is a bad beer; on that point, I suspect we’d all agree. But otherwise, I tend to think of a “good” beer as one that I like and want to drink (and that includes Budweiser).So sorry I misled (unintentionally) on my use of the word bad.

  8. This was originally posted by Russ:Maureen–I just stumbled on your blog today and worked my way back to this post. great insight. I think your point of view is bourne out in the political scene in MD as wineries are attempting to go direct to consumers (see link below for the news story). Notably, the (powerful) wholesalers lobby has killed this in the past (and looks to try doing so again), and their approach is to argue that direct-to-consumer encourages underage drinking. While it doesn’t directly reflect the “alcohol is evil” principle, it is a play on our culture and view of alcohol.In this case, the 3 tier system and cultural beliefs are reinforcing one another. As a consumer of craft beer and wine, I feel that my preferences (tasting a variety of well-made beverages versus smashing cans on my head) are not recognized, and my local government and local wholesalers stand in the way of this. There is a growing grass-roots effort to overcome this, which seems to me the only way to break this down.Thanks for your time and work.

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