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.
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!
*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.