A Bootleg Up: How Lax Import Regulations Made D.C. A Craft Beer Haven
The Dark Lord cometh. His chariot: a sturdy U-Haul truck. It might seem an understated mode of transport for the holder of such a noble title. But in the onerous realm of alcoholic beverage distribution, this is the direct route.
We’re talking about Three Floyds Brewing Co.’s hallowed Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout, a beer so sought-after that tickets for its one-day-only release, an annual event that has grown into the Indiana equivalent of Woodstock for craft brew aficionados, sell out in less than half an hour.
But unlike most of his minions, you don’t have to schlep all the way to the Hoosier State to partake of the Dark Lord, perhaps even the über-rare oak-aged version. Not if you intend to do your sipping in the District of Columbia, at least.
Pizzeria Paradiso’s Greg Jasgur can bring it to you. Jasgur has built a name for his beer program by carrying out-of-market beers that you can’t find anywhere else in the area. Upholding the pizzeria’s boozy cachet sometimes involves revving up the rental truck and racking up miles on trips to out-of-town breweries, including Three Floyds, where he loads up with cases of the aforementioned imperial stout and any of the producer’s other nobly-titled brews, such as the Alpha King Pale Ale.
It helps that Jasgur is friends with brewers Nick and Simon Floyd, whom he met through mutual friend and Jinx Proof tattoo artist Eric Doyle. “They come into town and get tattooed all the time,” says Jasgur. “Jinx Proof is right across the street from Paradiso’s Georgetown location and they love the bar. I told them about the idea of bringing their beer in and they were all for it.”
In other jurisdictions, this sort of DIY delivery system would be called “bootlegging,” and it would fly in the face of the law. But not in the District, where loose regulations allow retailers like Pizzeria Paradiso to import their own beer through virtually any means necessary. You can fill up your firkins in Philadelphia, or simply buy bottles from some Brooklyn bodega. Anything is possible outside the District line. “D.C.’s the wild, wild west,” says Erin Tyler, sales manager for Legends Limited, a Baltimore-based importer and distributor that does much of its business in the District.
In most states, a three-tier system requires bars and liquor stores to buy alcohol only from wholesalers, who get the product directly from a supplier, such as a brewery or importer. But here in D.C., as long as the brand is not available from a wholesaler in sufficient supply to satisfy the retailer’s needs, bars and shops can bring in products from out of state on their own, or have products shipped to them directly.
This means that someone like Jasgur can drive up to Connecticut to visit his family and then stock up on Captain Lawrence or other New York beers typically not distributed in D.C. on the way back—the exact process behind much of Paradiso’s off-menu bottle list.
The D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration only requires that he purchase a $5 import permit for each trip and pay the required taxes on the amount of alcohol he brings in before selling it.
It seems like a fair system for a municipal jurisdiction like D.C., where supply can be limited. “[The law] was created for that specific reason—to be able to purchase something that you can’t normally get here,” says ABRA spokeswoman Cynthia Simms. “I can see how it benefits a retailer. They can sell a product that can’t be purchased anywhere else in the District.”
And many do just that.
French and Canadian beer importer Jocelyn Cambier, the man responsible for bringing highly touted Alesmith and Lost Abbey bottles to the District recently, describes D.C.’s free market as a thing of beauty. “I am telling every brewer in the United States about it,” says Cambier. “You have foreign beers in D.C. that you cannot find any other place in the country. I think it’s a shame being an American brewer and not having your beer represented in D.C.”
Black Squirrel owner Amy Bowman has made several road trips to better stock her Adams Morgan bar, usually for special events celebrating beers from other states. “There are so many transplants in D.C. For many of them, these beers are what they had where they grew up, or during or right after college, and they get to enjoy a little piece of home,” Bowman says.
For suds-slingers just outside the District line, the rules are a lot more restrictive. Take Montgomery County, where retailers are required to place their orders through the local government. The product usually comes at a huge markup.
“A case of beer that would cost us $60 in D.C. costs $90 here. It’s bad for business,” says Thor Cheston, who manages Mussel Bar in Bethesda, as well as D.C.’s Brasserie Beck. “The people selling you the beer know nothing about it. Half the time the beer doesn’t make it on the truck and they charge a delivery fee even if they bring the wrong item. It’s ridiculous.”
“I would rather rip my eyeballs from my skull than open another restaurant in Montgomery County,” he says.
The District’s lack of red tape is a big part of the reason a craft beer culture thrives here. The growing popularity of micro brews, along with the option for retailers to skip the middle man by importing themselves, keeps wholesalers working to grow their portfolios. The ever-expanding selection of beer has helped develop a city of suds-savvy consumers eager to get their lips around each season’s hyped-up releases. Of course, all the enthusiasm inevitably carries some consequences.
“It’s really getting to the point where it’s hard for us to meet demand,” says Jeff Wells of local distributor DOPS Inc. “Everyone wants the rarest brews, but by definition those are the ones that we have the least of.” This scarcity of supply can leave retailers scrambling to bring in beers by any means necessary. According to several sources, some local bootleggers aren’t even bothering to pay the taxes or the measly $5 import fee. “At some point it’s going to raise some eyebrows,” said one retailer. “Basically nobody will be able to do anything after that.”
Another downside is cost. D.C.’s pricing structure is already high compared to many states. When self-imported beers are bought at retail instead of wholesale prices, taxed multiple times, plus extra fuel or shipping charges, they become very expensive. In February, D.C.’s Meridian Pint sold Russian River’s breakthrough double India pale ale Pliny the Elder for $20 per bottle. At the brewery in California, the same bottle sells for just $4.50. Meridian Pint brew director Sam Fitz explains that registration fees and the hefty rate for temperature-controlled shipping bumps the bar’s cost of importing that bottle up to $15 a pop.
Even Pizzeria Paradiso’s U-Haul-happy beer retriever, it seems, prefers the old distribution model. “Distributors have refrigerated trucks and are paid to take care of the beer the proper way,” he says, noting that the DIY method accounts for only a small fraction of his overall beer supply. “If someone put it in the back of their Camry and drove across country in the summer, it wouldn’t be good for the beer.”
For more on how breweries react to D.C.'s loose regs, go here.
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery