Sunday, March 07, 2010

Shut up about your Pliny the Younger*

Well, Sunday morning is not as easy as I thought it might be here today. I'd caught wind of a still-unfolding story involving the city's Memphis Taproom, Local 44, and Resurrection Ale House beer bars at the beginning of this weekend. I thought "wow" at the time and wondered how big this might get.

I won't go as far as to say I saw this coming, but I saw something like this coming. Things have been relatively quiet, peaceful, and amicable for sometime now. It was only a matter of time as more consumers, retailers, wholesalers, and suppliers are vying for what they see as a piece of the lucrative pie that is non-industrial/macro beer.

Add to this gnawing feeling the growing awe and angst that I've felt around all of these ridiculously hyped beers...HopSlam, Pliny the Younger are just two beers that we could start the conversation with. Lest I sound like a hypocrite, if you read here closely enough you likely know that I have a case of Monk's Blood, of Nugget Nectar, a six-pack of HopSlam, and bottles of Consecration in my personal inventory. I like drinking the interesting stuff as much as anyone, but I will refuse to throw elbows for, more than ever.

With all of this in mind, I'd been tossing around, for the past few weeks, the formulation of an article themed around the idea that the percentage of good guys (and ladies of course) in the work of "craft" beer has been dwindling. Not rapidly, mind you. And dwindling more at a glacial pace, and not the kind of global warming glacial pace, but I think you see what I mean. Don't get me wrong, there are still way, way more good guys at all levels of the business, but with more hands reaching for more money, something's bound to give.

From my first-hand (and sometimes first-and-a-half hand) experience and anecdotal evidence, Consumers want more beer...and the more rare, the more "exotic", the more we want it, right? From the other end, experienced talented Brewers/Suppliers and up-and-coming Brewers/Suppliers are battling to make beers that are the most interesting and demanded by the Consumers. And, they are making products that Consumers have never even dreamed they might want or like. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

But, in the frenzy to raise revenues and get their products out to and seen by an ever-widening and growing market of beer drinkers, Suppliers use Distributors to get their product to the Consumers. Wrapped around all of this is The Law. The Law written by legislators, overseen by an agency, and policed by a badge and gun. Most of whom I would challenge in their understanding, particularly, of the wide world of beer as we know it in regions like Philadelphia.

So how did this debacle at Memphis Taproom/Local 44/Resurrection Ale House get to this point? Only a few know 100% for certain. Some of the conjecture floating around attempts to center the discussion solely on Pliny the Younger and the inability for some to get it on their tap handles while the MT-44-RAH family of bars apparently have three. Fair? Unfair? I suppose that comes down to whether you like Brendan, Leigh, and what they are doing and have accomplished...or not.

And while I have a hard time getting my head around someone "ratting out" these folks for a keg or two of PtY, it may well have been the tipping point. Seriously? Would you risk your reputation on a $300 keg (or whatever PtY is costing bars nowadays)? Is the future of your bar really dependent upon getting a keg of PtY for a couple of hours? Is the hassle really worth it? I'm hearing more from folks on the retail end of things that the hassle of such things is getting less and less worth it....more on that to come.

What I'm increasingly more convinced of comes down to more of a conversation about envy. Jealousy of what these two have accomplished in a remarkable amount of time. (in case it's important to you, I should point out that I do not have a personal relationship with either Brendan or Leigh...simply a friendly professional one as a result of what I do here at The Brew Lounge.)

If you're the type of bar owner, though, that would do such a thing (and, yes, I'm going out on a limb without solid proof, that this was the anonymous tipster workings of a competing bar owner) then you fall into the category that I described earlier as a growing, albeit minority, people who do not have the best interests of the industry at heart. Are you not getting the beer geek cred/hype that you think you deserve? Then, I'd venture to suggest that you're not doing your job year-round to earn this. Getting a keg of PtY does not earn you a year-round reputation as a destination beer geek bar. And, do you really want the beer geeks? You know they can't sustain you year-round, right? You want a solid, diverse crowd. Once again, to risk completely alienating the beer geek crowd that you think you may want over a keg of PtY seems utterly foolish. That's why I'll continue to bring this back to a more personal and jealous angle of how/why this story is continuing to unfold.

Oh, The Law, in this case? Ha, I barely touched on their involvement in this. But, our friend Lew Bryson has done an admirable job of covering this area for quite some time now and has a well-construed synopsis of what has transpired this past week. Go and read it; it beats the heck of what I'm writing here.

The only two cents I would add on this topic, since I'm not sure it has been said letter for letter, is that before the PLCB and The Law go attempting to clean other's houses, they better make damn well sure that their's is first in order. That may be some interpretation of a parable, I'm not sure.

My point there is that I have never put 100% faith in what so many will adamantly point to as the website source for licensed brand registration in Pennsylvania. Is it what retailers and distributors should be able to point to with faith that the list is accurate?...sure! Even though there's a date at the top of the webpage, I've never put confidence that the fingers that type the entries on the list are getting it right on every line of roughly 3000 beers. Cynical? Perhaps. Reality in today's culture of less-than-concerned-with-100%-accuracy where all kids get a prize? Maybe.

From a Retailer's point-of-view, doing their homework, I believe, comes down to taking the PLCB's word (on their website) for what is registered and what is not. But, more importantly, working with the Distributor whose role it is to honor contracts as the prudent middleman between suppliers and retailers? At some point, retailers have to, I believe, fall back on what should be the distributor expertise in brand management for their market. Naive? Perhaps.

And, from the Supplier's perspective, it may sound like a lot to ask, particularly for smaller operations, but I firmly believe that breweries have to take responsibility for where their product winds up. I don't necessarily mean each retail account and the gray and black markets. Rather, I mean on a state-to-state, distributor-by-distributor, market-by-market basis. I believe that, once again as the market and brand "expert", the Distributors need to fill their role responsibly, but the brewery/Supplier needs to understand the State, its laws, etc. related to where their beer is sold. Thoroughly...inside and out. Sorry, it's just too important to neglect.

Finally, I urge you to become better versed in the distribution of alcohol. Don't take what I spill out here as anything close to gospel. I don't have the right answers and I surely have a lot to learn of my own. Though, I've yet to come across anyone who has all of the right answers and can speak definitively on these laws and the enforcement of them. There is way too much rumor-mongering and here-say taking place without much substantiation. This story is a complex one and one that deserves to be dealt with in fact and not supposition and half-truths.

Breathe....I said to myself that I would keep this to just a few paragraphs, but I had a difficult time sleeping last night and a lot becomes more clear during sleepless nights.

Agree? Disagree? I'm sure there are (and I have already been engaged in deep, lengthy, interesting, and thought-provoking discussions at Dock Street and TJs yesterday) many flavors of varied opinions on multiple sides of this complex story.

I don't know where this is all going, as I am surely no expert on the intricacies of beer distribution laws and politics. But, one can only wonder what this may portend for Philly Beer Week.

Oh, and maybe now's a good time to remind all to DRINK's a bit less complicated.

* The title of this posting is loosely inspired by the well-formed title of a well-written blog: Shut Up About Barclay Perkins and can be construed in a few different ways as to what I really mean by it. And you could stand to be correct in each way.


Lew Bryson said...

NO comments on this yet? This is one of the best posts you've ever made, and NO ONE has commented? Sheesh.

Well-done, Bryan. This deserves much more thought, and -- even more importantly -- more real research.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bryan,

Its none of my business, but what I want to know the most, concerning the whole outcome of the investigation is..who snitched, and for what...why? And was it three separate snitchers with different complaints, or just one really sick individual?

And why did the PLCB act on this information in such a headline-making way?

I really hope it is NOT all because of Pliny the Younger. Who would risk their business reputation and make that call unless they truly are sociopathic? [if that's the case then the PLCB just reinforced it and that person is probably on a manic high right now]

I hope there is some sort of action taken against them civilly and the snitcher don't end up with a "whistleblower" tax credit.

Are folks in the public ever going to find out what the outcome is? Not unless someone leaks it. IMO this is bad for Philly's craft beer reputation and a major blunder for Origlio.

Bryan Kolesar said...

Thank you Lew for the compliment.

Regarding the comments....I do feel sometimes like I do in my day job where I spend fair amount of time standing in front of people and talking to them. But, I make a point of saying that while I have a lot to share with them, I want to keep it interactive and talk with them. More times than I'm happy to admit, I get silence and it's like trying to get school kids to raise their hands in class. None the less, it does not deter me around these Brew Lounge parts.

Two things might be at play here. First, trying to get people involved and talking anywhere nowadays seems more difficult than ever as there are multiple places and ways to read, chat, and participate. Figuring out how and where to get involved in a conversation may often not seem worth it.

Second, this is a potentially explosive topic and folks may be shying away from saying too much too loudly. I'm upfront and say that I don't understand the 3-tier system as well as I would like to or should....and I'm certainly apprehensive about how I say things for which I may not be well studied enough. I could certainly see this as a perfect reason for simply keeping quiet.

Look even at the BA forum where the related thread has grown to around 50 replies, but I'm not so sure that there's much substance in the conversation there other than surprise and wonderment at what it all means. Your and Jack's posting have a handful of replies (oops, Jack's is now up to 33, more than just a handful) but, once again, nothing too bombastic or enlightening (I take that back; Leigh Maida's involvement in the conversation has been valuable). I think it's just a very dicey topic for people to want to get too involved in the conversation at this point.

Mike said...

Interesting read, Bryan. A few things come to mind regarding the subject.

1.)Both the brewery & the importing distributoer need to be on top of things like this. You can't push a highly touted brew such as this and after the fact say, "oops...meant to file those papers."

2.)The PLCB needs better internal regulation. I was hip on reading this list years ago when I was trying to get funding to start my own importing distributor. Historically, the list updates were few and far between. Looks like with this latest incident, they are now keeping the list up to date by the day. With that said, they need a beer savvy individual as an "inspector" in the case of such claims. The route of sending in the goon squad who try to match things up verbatim is just silly.

3.)In the case of the vintage beers that were taken out. I believe this could be challenged under law. If they had been purchased while the brands were registered with all according taxes being paid, it shouldn't matter whether or not the brewery is still in existence, or not. Lesson learned here? - Save all corresponding paperwork with good record keeping for those vintage ales!

With all that in mind, it's time the state overhauls the process and does it right.

JLitt said...

Hello, Bryan. Hope all is well. Here are some thoughts on the law and the role of the each party in the 3-tier system.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Section 445 of the Pa Liquor Code (Brand registration), I think people have lost sight of where the primary responsibility for compliance lies. Under Section 445 and PLCB-1905 (the Application for Malt or Brewed Beverage Brand Registration, available at the PLCB website, for licensees, applications and forms), it is up to the manufacturer or the franchisee of the manufacturer to register the brands. In addition, PLCB-1905 states importing distributors who accept delivery of unregistered beverages may also be subject to penalty. However, it is not the legal responsibility of the “retail dispenser” (the bar) to check the list every time they bring in a new beer. When a beer is offered or made available to a bar, they are justified in relying on the representation that the manufacturer or franchisee registered the brand and paid the $75 fee, and that the importing distributor is not offering unregistered brands. Now, it may be wise for a bar to check the list because unregistered beers are considered “contraband” under Section 444(c) that may be confiscated by the board and “disposed of,” which could be at a large financial loss to a bar. But primary responsibility for this law lies with the manufacturers and distributors not the bar owners.

Pete LaVerghetta said...

I was just talking to a pretty well know local publican over lunch. He's an interesting guy, self-effacing and humble, and he said something that bears repeating.

Digession: I'm a twenty year civil service lifer, working in procurement for DoD. I know all about big bureaucracies.

This publican said, 'y'know, it takes a while for this sort of thing to come to fruition.' So it's not some goofball with alleged food poisioning who decided to spin this up into 'OMG tax evasion.' Even if you file a well documented complaint, the PA LCB doesn't turn on a dime. Bitterness over getting shut out of PTY doesn't translate into three raids the following weekend.

jfitzy78 said...

I emailed all my suppliers today and one of my breweries responded and said.. The PLCB had us as an inactive brewery just a month after they sent us a thank you for re registering all your beers in pa!

They are in the process of "re activating" them as we speak.

This is not good for the beer biz, because many breweries will decide its not worth sending 10 kegs to PA if we have to add even more money to th cost of the beer simply to register it for a one and done limited time. There should be at least an Avail on a limited basis fee of some sort.. I dunno maybe I'm rambling.. but covering my ass too!

Bryan Kolesar said...

I get a feeling that CYA is going to be the prudent approach for some time now as things sort themselves out. See how that worked tonight at McGillin's for the Exit 16 release.

The right approach would be to let this help affect some appropriate, positive change in the laws and how they are enforced.

Though, to be a cynic, Bryson has been talking this sort of thing up for a few years now. How much change have we seen since then? (Not a knock against you, Lew..rather a comment on the sub-glacial pre global warming speed!! which legislative change comes...particularly in a state known for its quirky issues about alcohol control and enforcment)

Steve said...


Great article. The PLCB is a relic left in a progressive state in a progressive section of the country. Their antiquated laws hinder business and restrict consumers.

Hopefully, some good will come from this. Always look on the bright side of life.

Lew Bryson said...

Hey, no offense taken. I knew this was going to be a long, slow, Quixotic uphill slog when I started it. It was a hobby. The PLCB has made it a lot easier by screwing up a LOT...but that's the kind of arrogance you get from a government monopoly. This is the best, biggest crack in the wall in years. Before the PLCB and time and the Legislature patches it over, we need to shove a big-ass crowbar in there and push.

Bryan Kolesar said...

And now, Lew? Have you seen Don's latest posting? If you click the little, tiny "Privacy Policy" linky thing (that no one ever does, right?) at the bottom of the registered beers page...not even the PLCB believes that you should rely on the information that they provide.

Big, gaping cracks....