Don’t get me wrong – the basic wheel, essential plumbing, the hammer and its step-brother the nail, the alphabet and printing press, irrigation, eyeglasses, penicillin, the spinning Jenny, the washing machine, the refrigerator (and, um, a reluctant acquiescence to the internet), all are fine inventions in their own rights, but distant seconds to beer. Even the electric guitar plays second fiddle to a good beer. And nowhere else is beer better appreciated than here in Wisconsin (in this country at least). Sure, we haven’t gone “coastal” like Dogfish or Sam Adams, Redhook or Sierra Nevada, but you know you’re in good company when your biggest city’s professional sports franchise is named “Brewers.” Furthermore,* as long as getting “Schlitz’d” still means something – and lord knows it does – you can thank Wisconsin for that too. And while no true hipster would ever admit to being a hipster, if you’re sipping PBR, then you’d best give a quick nod and wink to Wisconsin – even if that cramps the tragically too cool façade evinced.
So it is with due confusion and frustrated “wtf” that the most recent proposed legislation in the Joint Finance Committee– slipped in all but literally at the eleventh hour – that negatively impacts microbreweries in Wisconsin makes me want to throw up my hands in the air, fearing to wonder, “Good God! what’s next? Banning apple pie? The Packers? Cribbage? Naptime?” Indeed, it’s enough to drive one to drink. So crack one open as we plod through this crappy batch.
The Skinny on the Beer Gut
First off, if you wish to fix your eyes on the actual legalese, you can find the nine-page motion here, but the breakdown of it is below. Before we chug along, however, it might be wise to parse semantics insofar as “wholesaler” is just another name for distributor, which in most cases (cases…) is merely the median between beer maker and beer drinker. True, some of the larger small-scale breweries distribute their own beers, like New Glarus for instance (though only in Wisconsin), hence some of wholesaler language clauses, but this is the exception, not the norm (as in “Peterson”). Anyway, the motion would:
- Eliminate the current option of a brewer choosing to self-distribute or starting a wholesale distribution company;
- Eliminate a brewer’s current right to have ownership in two restaurants;
- Protect via grandfather clause current wholesalers’ retail licenses, while eliminating that benefit for new start up wholesalers;
- Unfairly burden new wholesalers and breweries with a requirement of 25 separate independent retail customers before a wholesale license can be granted;
- Eliminate the ability of brewers to sell existing retail or wholesale operations separately from the brewing operation;
- Eliminate current wholesale investment in privately held Wisconsin breweries while allowing investment in out of state and foreign and publicly traded breweries;
- Move the power of licensing wholesalers from municipalities to the state level under the jurisdiction of the Department of Revenue;
- Allow wholesalers only to sample beer at retail establishments (on and off premise), not the breweries. Consequently, the people who know their beer the best cannot do sampling. Additionally, they are subject to the distributors’ schedule.
What is the three-tier system in the first place? I didn’t know either! Here’s a simple but consummate explanation of it, up to and including its history and potential future. (Plus it’s a nifty website for the whistle-wetters amongst us!)
It’s arguably biased, coming from the perspective of an affected craft brewer, but sometimes that’s the very insight needed to understand an issue better – and the very one not solicited before this draft legislation (draft…) was written up. You heard right: neither the underdog microbrewer nor mom-and-pop hop-head was tipped off about this taps spat betwixt Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors til it found its way slipped like a Mickey into the biennium budget and passed by the JFC with nary a naysayer saying boo about it, Democrat or Republican. (What might be most incredulous of all were the two dissenting votes against this motion that came from the veritable progressive Bob Jauch and the ultra-conservative Glenn Grothman; strange brew of fermented bedfellows indeed! Though maybe not as strange as the rogues galley of heavyweights behind this proposal, by whom I mean the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association, Tavern League of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Grocers Association, The Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores Association (yes, the Kwik-E-Mart has its own lobbyist group!), and the Wisconsin Spirits & Wines Institute, and, of course, MillerCoors.
So that’s the who’s behind this, but what’s the what’s? In other words, what does this all even mean? It depends on whom you ask. Those who favor the dark side assert that this is yet another evil ploy by Republicans. Oddly enough, while I am by no means unsympathetic to that line of thinking, I find myself on the lighter side on this one and am under the persuasion that craft beer makers are getting caught in the middle of something uglier – that all of this is nothing more than the latest round (round…) between two 800-lbs gorillas (Budweiser and MillerCoors), with pipsqueak chimps (microbreweries) facing the fallout. That said, I’ve been accused of being naïve before.
To put this all into big picture context, let’s start at the beginning. Fortunately, a very revealing documentary film was made about this, called Beer Wars. If you haven’t seen it, you should – perhaps now…perhaps here…
Earlier this year in Illinois, Anheuser-Busch sued state liquor regulators over distributorship buyout rights on the grounds of protectionist discrimination and won. (Apprehensive that they could not tap into the Illinois beer market, the world’s largest purveyor of swill crybabied foul.) Fearing a stout outcome here, (stout…) the folks at MillerCoors got their crack staff to whip out some last-minute legislation. Intentionally or not, microbrewers are getting dragged into the loggerheads (lager…). How? Because the motion seeks to prevent brewers from buying wholesale distributorships. You can read MillerCoors’ public statement here (it’s brief), but the capper is its concluding advice: “MillerCoors supports clear separation of ownership and majority control between the brewing, wholesaling and retailing tiers, and suggests to the state’s small brewers who oppose this legislation that ‘…those who fail to understand history are destined to repeat it.’” Is that a veiled threat?
So in short, by preventing microbrewers from buying distributorships, their access to selling their wares to the public will be limited. Why? Because microbrews constitute something piddley like 5 percent of the total market (which once again proves how irrepressibly popular bad taste truly is). So what? So wholesalers/distributors are in the business to make money, and if the market is predominated by crap, krap, and qrap, then that’s what they’re gonna push, not the good stuff. That’s why the groceries and convenience stores are behind this.
And the reason the Tavern League is behind it is its fear of the increasingly successful brewpub. Miller and the Tavern League are some of the oldest good ole boy institutions in Wisconsin, hand in glove like a Bloody with a beer back.
Even in Wisconsin, where beer is so permanent and permeated a part of the culture we might as well have a federal grant to drink (to borrow a Lewis Black joke), even here profit-lust splits the state faster than a fake debate between tastes great and less filling. It doesn’t matter a dram that there’s more and more demand for real beer, diverse beer, local beer. Whatever’s good for the MillerCoors goose boosts the profit margins for the Tavern League gander, and that’s all that matters. And of course in the era of Scott Walker and the Republican majorities in the State Legislature we’ll move the licensing agency from local municipalities to the uber-bureaucratic Department of Revenue, because what could be smaller government than that?
But I’m Just One Beer Drinker — What Can I do About It?
If you’re as pissed as you should be (in every sense), here’s what you can do about it. First, consider signing this petition. The state Senate hasn’t touched this yet, so I encourage you to contact not only your own legislator, but all of them. Here’s the homepage for all the senators; click on each name for individual email addresses/ phone numbers. I don’t see why there couldn’t be a clause or some such permitting breweries that make under, say, 200,00 barrels a year, from buying distributorship. (For point of reference, New Glarus is the state’s biggest microbrewer, yet still makes under a hundred thousand barrels annually.) That probably violates some coveted tenet of the so-called free market, but I prefer my cows spotted, not sacred.
The other thing you can do – and far more fun – is support your craft brewer. Here’s a state map and listing of microbreweries and brewpubs around Wisconsin.
Another idea I had, but even less realistic, is a grassroots effort, purely voluntary value added tax. Knowing that even the most local of local liquor shops still — still! — make their bread and butter off of Bud, Coors, and Miller, I am proposing The Plus One Plan (+1): for those who can afford it adding a buck to the price of every six-pack of microbrew that would go into a separate fund to offset the presence of the Big 3 in hopes of encouraging more presence/prominence of craft beer. If the proprietor of your local shop is cool and creative, this might work. I am obviously not business-savvy, so all input and better ideas are most welcome. Til then, cheers!