Brew Biz: Werts and All

The Topic: The Death and Rebirth of a Beer Tasting

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay, Salt City and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

 I think the first Beaver River Beer Tasting was in 2006, at The Beaver River Hotel: now called Beaver River Lodge. During those years, for a brief time, the tastings expanded to three different locations. The Labor Day beer tasting was always the most successful, with Millie, my wife, counting about 60-70 people at one point. For a town with no roads going to it, only accessible by boat, barge or trail: that’s incredible.
 Beaver River Beer Tastings have always been a mix of commercial beers and homebrews: commercial examples bought, by myself, from stores like Yankee Spirits in Sturbridge, Beers of the World in Batavia, NY, Marcy Discount, in Marcy, NY, Tully’s in Wells, Maine and Midtown in Nashville. Basically stores all over the east coast: from Mississippi to Maine.
 A few were from brewpubs who bottle their own or do growlers. All commercial examples had already been taxed and almost all had gone through distributors, the few exceptions: growlers and bottled examples from brewpubs. This year I had three, out of probably 200 different brews. Most years all were bought from stores who were supplied by distributors.
 Of course, being a homebrewer and a member of three clubs homebrew was part of the mix.
 No brewer sponsored these tastings. We had no visiting breweries, no breweries participating nor booths serving their product. I am on no brewer’s payroll: nor am I a vendor for any of them. I didn’t promote any brewery during the tastings: indeed most of these beers I hadn’t tried yet. I would explain the style each was based on, how each one might vary from that style… as intended by the brewer… get and give feedback after the pours.
 Does it fit the style?
 Is it a good example of the style?
 If not why not?
 Sometimes I would also point out history of the style, the ingredients or methods used to brew that style and any obvious defects I sensed.
 As a BJCP beer judge, a homebrewer since Carter made it legal and an author of several columns based on beer I would offer my “expert:” somewhat educated, opinions. Note: all experts are “somewhat” educated because, as any well educated person knows, there’s always more to learn. Palates always need more training.
  “Ah ha!” you might exclaim, “you’re using this to enrich your lucrative beer columnist career!”
  Wrong-o. I do my beer columns: like the one you’re reading right now, for free and for the love of homebrewing, judging brew in competition and my interest in, my love for, all things, beer.
  At this point I usually have some suspicious souls asking, “Why would you do that?”
  Why do we do anything we love and care about deeply? If you have nothing like that in your life I feel pity for your sorry posterior. Really.
 The last few years the tastings have become so popular I have been hauling a huge locker filled with beer a thousand miles north every June while putting in just enough ice to avoid defects created by sun exposure and heat. I buy more on the way up, then in New York and New England.
 This year I almost had to haul most of it back to Tennessee… stay tuned for the conclusion to this odd little drama.
 I did do a pre-contact for one business via E-mail to make sure we were still on. No response, which usually means “no problem.” It’s a very busy business and this is usually what “no response” means.
 So I only knew something was up about 3 weeks before the first tasting, when I was asking about specifics regarding this year’s tastings and I was told, “We’re not sure. We’ll get back to you.” When I asked what the problem was, “Well, as you know we have been under the microscope, and we just want to make sure everything we do is legal.”
 I’m not going to get into the personal business of any business kind enough to host me, let’s just say there have been legal issues that have nothing to do with me. I thought this was what was being referred to. Beaver River is a tiny town with issues, angst and drama far beyond its size, and making trouble for others: no matter how nasty the intent, or how unwarranted, seems a fun profession for some here. I sincerely think, sometimes, it’s the only real reason they stick around. They get a kick out of nitpicking their neighbors or even just making stuff up. Rumors: better known as lies, get spread, police get constant calls with the obvious intent to make them select out someone the caller doesn’t like and enforce laws they may not even be violating.
 This is all I thought they meant by “microscope” and “legality.”
  And this is all I knew at this point in this mini-drama.
 After a week passed I told them, since they still seemed unsure, if it was alright with them, I’d take it elsewhere. Besides, as I explained that day, they have a business model that has worked very, very well for them, but not so well for what I was trying to do. When my main source for tasters is a tour boat which could have anyone on it from anywhere: and you never know until they get there how many or who will be on that boat, well, how does one promote such an event? I tried every year: various ways, and it always came down to whomever just happened to take the tour that day. Promotion done, again, at my own expense.
 It was a few weeks later when i found out there was more to the “legality” issue, that’s when the owner of the second location told me he had legal issues too.
 The “issues” were old ones: by no means limited to New York State; fought and won by homebrewers, BJCP test givers and beer educators across the country. “Won” so many times I thought this part of the battle was over.
 Guess not.
 Here are the supposed “legal” issues I was told about: the day before the first tasting…
1. We needed a “sample” permit: $25.
2. All beer had to be brought through a distributor.
3. Pours had to be a specific amount.
 No problem with #1 or #3, though I believe they might be directly related to #2. Once I knew the specifics, well, I have had some experience with #2 in the past, out of state…
 Apparently the portion of NY law being cited is in reference to Brew Fests.
 I wasn’t running a “brew fest.”
 More on that in a moment.
 Here are a few of the past run ins with this feltergarb that I know of: I sure there have been more…
 A few years ago my homebrew club in Nashville, Tennessee, set up a club meeting with the owner/manager of The Pharmacy: a gourmet burger place. He knew far in advance we would be bringing in our own homebrew that day to sample and critique at the end of the meeting. We assured him: we always buy plenty of beer from wherever we hold our meetings. However, when we walked in the day of the meeting the assistant manager told us we couldn’t bring our homebrew in to sample post meeting because it hadn’t been taxed and all beer must be sold to a distributor first then bought by the business. Otherwise it was illegal.
 Sound familiar?
 The owner overruled his assistant manager, explaining the assistant used to work for a distributor.
 Apologizing, the owner said: “This is nonsense: I checked it out with my lawyers. He knows that”
 The employee no longer works there, but I have been told he has gone back to work for the distributor.
 Once you read my points, you’ll understand that some might claim, since what I was doing involves samples and beer: that’s all that’s needed to qualify as “Brew Fest.” However: in court, my lawyers would argue, otherwise, what I was doing does not fit “Brew Fest” at all. Indeed it would be casting a net so wide arguments against selective enforcement and unequal protection would serve… if nothing else. Homebrew clubs, for example, provide samples of not just homebrew, but during BJCP tests commercial beers: and quite often in brewpubs and pubs all across the country: including New York State. These are for educational purposes: especially the testing example. To single me out pretty much defines “unequal.”
 But… is this a battle I wish to exhaust my limited resources on, when I’m doing this for free? Of course not: which is exactly what distributors and mega-brew rely on when they try to insist on this petty nonsense. When it comes to “not wishing to exhaust limited resources” the same is true, I’m sure, for owners of inns and lodges: especially in a tiny town like Beaver River where just getting by pretty much defines the concept of doing business.
 Another experience: my first homebrew club tried to schedule a competition for Music City Brewers and a local business. We simply switched to another business for a location for the event. By the way, for well over 10 years, a brewpub called Boscos held both many meetings and competitions without the slightest concern. These were well advertized, yearly, events: with gentleman as a club member who helped who was also THP officer, who also as an officer knew the law, and helped pursue valid drug and alcohol cases.
 Yes: all those years this officer was involved in a highly illegal activity he was also pursuing others for. Right.
 Every once in a while, in various states: since I am a member of several clubs and judge beer in various states, these issues have popped up. Apparently some distributors feel they own the right to all beer that gets anywhere near any business they do business with. One problem with this little jewel, for example, is that homebrew can’t be sold: it’s illegal. Therefore it can’t be taxed and can’t be distributed, except by the brewers themselves: for free. Distributors don’t own it, can’t own it or control it. If the business serves it instead of the brewer: and especially if they tried to sell it, of course they have a say. If I were to serve it at the bar, that would also be problem, I suspect. I suspect what goes in the coolers and what’s on tap behind the bar, or near the bar, the businesses are covered by means of contract. Try to sell any of this: yes, you or I could go to jail.
 But anywhere near that business, as part of free beer education demonstration done by moi’?
 Eh, good luck with that if I decided to put a lot of money in fighting back.
 Think about it for a second: homebrew clubs often hold meetings and beer competitions where they serve samples all across the nation, often a various pubs: yes, in New York State too. Sometimes they provide commercial examples too. Not at the bar, obviously. You tell me each and every one of these pubs is in violation? Can you provide me a long list of won court cases where homebrewers and pub owners were jailed? Give me a break. Geez.
 To be honest this has been a battle fought on many fronts. Early in the days of craft beer distributors who sold craft were threatened by mega brewers. Sell craft: lose your most lucrative product. (Um, excuse me: restraint of trade?) Legislators: and obvious donations from large corporations bee, have helped pass packaging laws, and other beer related laws, that make brewing and selling craft difficult. To be honest the less related homebrew has simply been dragged along for the ride from hell from time to time. And this been a long war, hasn’t it craft beer lovers, and homebrewers? Anything to feed the three tier system and discourage anything big brew feels threatened by. I have found there’s an endless supply of those who willing to cast the widest net possible and spread the gospel of “absolutely everything must go through distributors.”
 It is a “war” no businesses, like my locations for previous tastings, should have to fight. They have enough on their plates. Oh, God do they have so much on their plates. (And a lot of it tastes quite good by the way, but I digress, or is that “digest?”)
 When I downloaded the documents that supposedly proved the case… OK, a $25 sample fee. Sigh. If I must. Limited pours. Well, that’s the definition of “sample,” right? But the other document was striking: it was regs on a brew festival in New York State.
 Again: I was not running a brew festival. I have worked brew festivals. I have helped plan them. I have helped run them. By simply looking at their regs you can see their definition of “Brew Fest.” I have no booths with different brewers providing pours or promotional material for any brewery. There’s no entrance fee. No one profits from what I do. I am owned by no brewery.
 No, I was providing beer education, at my own expense. It’s not the same. This was an educational event: in no way a “festival.”
 The concept of claiming anything involving nothing more than samples and beer is automatically a “beer festival” is ludicrous. A beer festival is, otherwise, the opposite of what I was doing. I have no “brewing license,” nor do I need one as a homebrewer. I do not work for any brewer. I am my own volunteer. I sell no tickets, or gain any profit, for it is… free! Now, to be honest here for the last few years I did put out, by request, a donation bucket which: if that would be an issue, I would willingly pull. Absolutely.
 These are all how a “Brew Fest” is essentially defined by the very sheet I was sent.
 I was not running a “Brew Fest.”
 Again: I was running an educational event. The law may not make that distinction: but I’m sure we can come up with a lot of absurd examples where any law doesn’t “make a distinction.” And not enforcing against them too defines my claim of “selective enforcement” and “unequal protection.”
 Now a caveat: I willingly admit I am not as well versed in the laws of New York as I am Tennessee. Yet the idea that all these beer events and educational opportunities I have attended here in New York State, and elsewhere, have some distributor buy their beer before it gets on site, or that they are all considered “brew fests,” legally, is absurd. The idea that they are all operating illegally without being raided or shut down goes beyond “absurd.” It provides the “bogus” element to my claims here.
 But you won. Thanks a lot.
 The day before my first tasting the rug was pulled and I was left with tons of beer to haul back to Nashville and a lot of people I promoted to who most likely might view me as a liar. To be clear: I don’t blame either business here in Beaver River, besides there’s enough unwarranted animosity towards both businesses… hell, if I were them I would have backed out too. We live on the edge here and the loss of a liquor license can, indeed, destroy a business.
 I do blame those who might apply “Brew Fest” rules to something so clearly not a “Brew Fest:” something they most likely know little to nothing about, except they can crush it. And I blame those who try to make damn sure these laws are vague enough that such petty, nonsense, games are played from time to time.
 Ironically, after I read this to my wife a moment ago, she told me this year a distributor contacted the organizer of a beer festival Music City Brewers pour at every summer and insisted homebrewers couldn’t serve their own beer because a distributor didn’t distribute it. The organizer knew better. So my homies poured their homebrew anyway.
 Amazing! No lawsuit or enforcement against my criminal companions. Not even a threatening visit from some mythical the Big Beer Organized Crime Syndicate. No homebrewers found at the bottom of Percy Priest Reservoir, their feet sunk in cement filled kegs.
 Gee, ya’d think if this was so damn important we’d at least be wondering where the skeleton of one of our peeps resides now: the Jimmy Hoffa of homebrew.
 By the way I suspect most distributors, and those connected to them, are fine, respectable folks who only wish to serve the their customers. I know bigger than most craft beer brewers who are pretty bloody honest, and only wish to compete fairly, honestly. But I have had seen enough of this nonsense to know there’s far more going on here than just an overreach by trying to classify what I do as a “Brew Festival.”
 I did feel bad for the businesses who had to turn away something that brought folks to their doors. And was bothered by the fact that the image I felt I was left with was someone willing to risk ruining two businesses, and specifically risk one by not telling them what I did not know: that this had to do with more than the back and forth nasty many small towns have too damn much of.
 On the bright side we did hold the beer tasting. Now they’re now going to have to find some way to prove serving beer I bought or made on my own property, for free, is illegal.
 It went well.
 And they can’t do a damn thing about it.
 Yet.

                                                             -30-

Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing and commenting on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”

©Copyright 2013
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
All Rights Reserved