Young and Hungry

What Do Brewers Think About D.C.’s Beer ‘Bootlegging’?

This week's Y&H column about how local beer retailers take advantage of D.C.'s lax alcohol import regulations made me curious. Often "bootleggers" like Amy Bowman at The Black Squirrel or Thor Cheston at Brasserie Beck work directly with breweries to get their beer into the District. But what about the breweries whose beer is being brought into D.C. without their knowledge?

Dann Paquette, co-founder of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project in Cambridge, Mass., for one, had thought his well-received small batch beers were only available in a few states in the Northeast. He was shocked to find out via Twitter that wasn't entirely the case.

"Tweets are like burglar alarms for a brewer,” says Paquette. “I saw a tweet that said someone was serving our beer in Washington, D.C., and I freaked out. I got on the phone within ten seconds–I didn’t even get out of bed–and called up the place.”

The person on the other end of the line was Greg Jasgur, who spices up the beer program at Pizzeria Paradiso with occasional trips out of state to pick up kegs or bottles of beer not officially distributed in the District.

Paquette had concerns about his beer being in a territory he had not authorized and wasn't pleased with the high prices his bottles were going for, a result of the extra fuel, time, and taxes it takes a retailer like Jasgur to get an out-of-market beer into D.C.

Brewers are naturally protective of their frothy products. But a big price tag isn't always the chief concern. When I spoke to Russian River founder Vinnie Cilurzo and Deschutes brewmaster Larry Sidor about a recent D.C. dinner that featured both of their beers, shipped here from mail order shops on the West Coast, the beer moguls each had their own qualms about the potential impact on the integrity of their product.

Beers like Deschutes' The Abyss imperial stout or Russian River's Pliny the Younger triple India pale ale, both at the top of BeerAdvocate’s list of highest-ranked beers in the world, are brews that people try to get their hands on in any way possible. In fact, the latter is rumored to have sparked Philadelphia’s headline-making beer raids last year.

This kind of demand can pose a problem for brewers. “The beer enthusiast needs to respect our business decision not to be in every market,” Cilurzo explains.  “They don’t understand the business and how expensive it is. They say why don’t we just make more and it will fix the problem, but it’s not that easy. We don’t want to keep growing and growing and become so in debt that it’s stressful. We’re happy where we’re at.”

Quality control is often a brewer's main beef with bootlegging. “I really dislike people shipping hoppy beers," says Sidor, "because when it gets wherever it’s going, the beer’s not going to be so good and that’s totally unacceptable." Usually beer is distributed to bars and other retailers by wholesalers who have a direct contract with the brewery. This three-tier system ensures that the beer is transported, stored, and priced appropriately.

The D.C. self-importers I spoke with seem to make every effort to ensure proper care of the beer. They either use air-conditioning or drive straight through and don’t make trips in middle of the summer when high temperatures could ruin the beer. “I would never bring a beer in if the brewery was worried about the conditions,” says Black Squirrel's Bowman, who fastened a seat belt around a keg of Sly Fox in the back seat of her car to make sure it made it to D.C. safely for her bar's Philadelphia-themed beer week last year.

So long as the people handling their product understand their concerns and demonstrate respect for beer, most brewers don't seem to mind too much. Bowman, Cheston, and Jasgur each told me that brewers have been flattered that the bars went out of their way to get their beer. In fact, breweries like Ithaca, New Belgium, and Pretty Things will soon officially be distributed in the District, at least in some part due to the buzz and brand-building the D.C. bars have already done.

Despite his initial alarm, Pretty Things' Paquette told me he was quickly comforted by how much care Paradiso's Jasgur had taken to fetch his far-flung suds and deliver it safely to the District. “He was apologetic to the point where I could see he really cared about the beer. The last thing he said was, ‘I won’t serve it if you tell me not to.’ I thought that was the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. This is the beer business. We’re making beer that we love, but come on.” With a laugh, he adds, “I felt like we were in better hands there than at a lot of other places, so it was all right. I just can’t wait to sell it to him legit so he can bring the prices down.”

Photo by Tammy Tuck

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  • Fisch

    “I really dislike people shipping hoppy beers," says Sidor, "because when it gets wherever it’s going, the beer’s not going to be so good and that’s totally unacceptable."

    Wasn't the whole reason behind the creation of well-hopped beers in the 18th and 19th century to create a beer that would keep during long voyages and have the ability to be cellared for long periods of time?

  • Dry Hop

    It is true that IPAs came out of over-hopping beers for the natural antiseptic qualities of hops for the beer to survive the journey from England to the troops in India. The problem is that that hop character created from dry-hopping starts to fade pretty quickly which is why IPAs are meant to be consumed young (young in beer age, not people age) before that hop profile starts to fade and change. The brewers design these beers to hit a target flavor profile and the longer they sit around during transport in improper conditions, the more the beer will deviate from what the brewer had intended to be consumed.

  • Jeremy Brown

    As a long-time patron of Pizza Parasiso, I wanted to add that Greg Jasgur does a fantastic job with the selection, presentation, and care of the beer they serve.

    Pizza Paradiso has some of the most knowledgeable and passionate beer fans working at their various locations.

    Beers are in very good hands there. I was first introduced to many beers from breweries like Russian River and Deschutes by going to Paradiso. It's one of the best beer bars around, and I'm very happy they are willing to go the extra mile (literally) to provide great beers for their customers.

    US and state laws around liquor distribution are ridiculous, and I encourage brewers to push for less regulation and wider distribution of their products.

  • Bruce Majors

    The sad state of Washington, D.C. A journ-0-lisp for an allegedly hipster paper bemoans the fact that beer sales in DC are not government controlled, and that any restaurant is free to go out an buy and serve any beer, because DC "accidentally" forgot to control sales as much as "normal" states do.

    I guess we can expect to see City Paper editorials now on regulating rolling papers, pipes, and the distribution of free newspapers without appropriate state supervision.

  • Ron

    Settle down, Bruce.

  • Chris Shott

    Bruce, with all due respect, I think you've misinterpreted the point of Tammy's reporting. Go back and read the original article:

    There is no bemoaning. Quite the opposite. The author is clearly celebrating the lax regulation as a big reason why the craft beer scene is flourishing here in the District.

  • Beer Bunnies

    We agree with Jeremy Browns statement "US and state laws around liquor distribution are ridiculous, and I encourage brewers to push for less regulation and wider distribution of their products"
    However, we need to support our local breweries and US Based Manufacturers as well. As a side note- we've tried some great 'homebrews' out in MD last year !

  • Dry Hop

    I think some of the above posters glossed over the part stating how the affiliate of the brewery is the one that contacted Jasgur of Pizzeria Paradiso because the brewery was upset the product was in an unauthorized territory. It wasn't the Government regulations holding them back.

    A brewery can only churn out so much brew on the equipment and space they have. That means they produce a limited supply and are forced to either expand their brewery operation or make the conscious decision to limit their distribution themselves to least keep some areas in decent supply. Breweries, recently including Dogfish Head, have pulled out of distributing to some areas because they cannot brew enough to meet the demand and still keep the same quality of their product.

    I know I for one would rather see the quality of the brew maintained than compromise the quality of the product to increase quantity and distribution of an inferior product.

    That being said, I do love being able to try these beers that I don't otherwise have access to. I also understand the plight of the brewery to avoid having pressure from distributors to up their capacity to distribute to a larger territory.

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