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Dec 25

Koch calls for citizen beer bloggers to act as Private Dicks

Greg Koch challenges citizen bloggers at BBC10

“With great beer blogging comes great responsibility … and part of that responsibility is understanding our industry and … if you’re not in it, there seems to be a pretty wide gap understanding how it works.”

…and by “in it,” Greg Koch (pronounced ‘Cook’) of Stone Brewing Company indicated those who are “actively selling beer” — you know these as the three-tiers: brewers, wholesalers, and retailers. If this concept is new to you, check out Anat Baron’s Beer Wars: The Movie, which gives an overview of the system and its politics.

Private Dicks in the beer industryAs I listened in to Koch’s presentation at the first annual Beer Bloggers Conference, I couldn’t help but look around the room and do a quick count of those who sell beer. I am one of those. And I was definitely outnumbered by “citizen” beer bloggers.

In my time before beer, I worked in another regulated industry: Medical Devices. Though I entered the field by writing instructional and service manuals, by the time I left I was setting up usability studies to ensure touch screen devices were easy to use and acted as quick guides in critical care scenarios. Everything we did was tightly regulated and approved by the Food & Drug Administration.

So, moving from that to another “regulated” industry seemed like it would be a piece of cake. Medical equipment approval and regulation under the FDA is pretty black and white. I thought the beer industry, which is regulated at the Federal level by an agency known as the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and at our state level by the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB), would similarly be a straight-forward, black-and-white.

Oh, and I was so wrong.

Beer is alcohol. And alcohol is a controlled substance — at both Federal and State levels. And every state has different laws.

What I have learned about working with the WSLCB over the past four years is: There are laws and there are guidelines. Some guidelines are treated as laws. Who you talk to at the state level will impact the answer you are given. Hence, it’s always best to call the WSLCB head office direct rather than relying on a satellite office to answer questions — and it’s always best to get things in writing.

I have also learned: The beer industry is political in nature. Being a #1 beer store or beer bar won’t guarantee you sufficient quantity of a limited release for your customers. Getting adequate supply is about playing the game and building the right relationships. My problem is I’ve never been good at playing games; I’m a straight shooter, I follow the rules, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I am likely not cut out for this business. And this is why I am particularly enthralled with what Koch is about to say to this room of citizen beer bloggers…

I lean forward in my chair, listening intently as Koch continues,

“There’s a lot of lack of comprehension about … the shit that goes on in our industry and … a lack of exposure about it. There’s a lot of funny stuff that goes on that prevents you from getting the beers that you want. From the people who read your blogs from getting the beers they want, consumers, even retailers to some extent from getting the beers that they want.”

Okay, I’m ready. Tell these beer-drinking bloggers how it works, Koch!

“…Part of our responsibility is to share this with the public. The hard gritty facts; the realities that we’re faced with. Because the more that we shine the light on some of these dark corners, the more that we can have great quality business done and open up the pathway to some of these great small brewers that have trouble getting access to market.”

Stone's Lukcy Basartd previewed at BBC10Koch then changes topics to share a new beer with the room. I am left hanging on thoughts about about small brewers and access to market. As a beer retailer, we welcome new beers to our shelves from small brewers — all we require for introduction to our customers is a legal product. The beer simply needs to have Federal label approval and be legally available in Washington state. That simple.

With such simplicity to get bottles to market, I ponder what Koch is going to say next as I enjoy a glass of his incredibly bold and delicious Lukcy Basartd Ale. Finally, Koch returns to the subject—

“We hear a lot about the three-tier industry… My challenge to you is to understand how it works, not how it’s supposed to, but how it really works. Do you understand that when you see certain types of brand on tap tower, after tap tower, after tap tower that there’s something going on. That there’s a certain kind of business dealing, especially you can call it out when you say to yourself, ‘Why is that beer here? It’s not local. It’s not particularly good or well respected. It’s not well-known amongst the general populace. I’m seeing it all these places because it’s being pushed.’

An easy example is when you go to a public venue — a sporting venue, an airport — and you see certain selections that you don’t see in the local broad market, local pubs and restaurants…you see almost none of that particular beer.  How did it get there? Has anybody thought about doing a little investigative journalism into this? Because this has got to have a public benefit…usually stadiums have some form of public ownership. There’s public money, public land, public time and attention is spent to have these venues out there and yet… This as a consumer, pisses me off.

I consider myself a consumer advocate.

When something happens behind the scene that removes my choice as a consumer. When I as a consumer get sold out before I even get there. Now it doesn’t matter if I have a cover charge to get into this public facility — if they’re not charging me it’s less of an issue — but if I’m paying a ticket price and there’s something going on behind the scenes that’s selling my choice out, so something that would reasonably be available within an area and that choice has been removed from me, I’m pissed off.

Now think about this. Is this really the way we want our world to work?”

Koch went on to talk about the inability of setting up contracts for serving “this beer but not that beer,” with brief mention of advertising monies. To sum it up, he spoke of several things that are illegal under the three-tier system, such as “1 on 4″ — where for every 4 kegs of beer a retailer purchases, one is given free. And despite such practices being illegal, they go on all the time in the beer industry.

Beer bloggers and beer drinkers, what think ye of all this?

How do you draw attention to such practices without blacklisting yourself? I don’t want to call-out those who’ve been supportive of us; I don’t want to turn anyone in. But, like Koch, “I want to be able to talk about the nonsense that goes on” in this regulated industry of beer.

Listen to Koch’s entire presentation on vimeo.

Photo credits: ©2010 99 Bottles LLC
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