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