Apr 25

Selling rare beers in Washington State

Some of our customers are really into beer. They follow us on facebook to see what’s coming in daily. Many of these beer lovers seek out craft beer that’s got such limited production that bottles sell out within hours of arrival. It’s like Trekkies only their hobby (or “geekery” you may say) is beer, not Star Trek.

They get an early start and wait in a pre-opening line for fifteen minutes to an hour just to get a single bottle. Yes, there are beers that we get hundreds, if not thousands of requests for, of which we only receive 12 bottles, 24 bottles, 48 bottles.

We discuss the number of unique requests. Should we do an immediate release (i.e., “Drop what you do and come in NOW if you want one?”) or a next-day or weekend release (i.e., “Be nice enough to give folks the heads-up so they can arrange their schedules or get someone else to come in and pick one up?”). In effort to be fair to all — loyal, new, returning — people all have the same rules: First come, first get, no holds, bottle limit applied.

Bottle limits applied

Per person means we trust that the person isn’t going to pull up in a clown car, where their friends and family and neighbors all climb out of the car, all together to get 7 bottles for one dude. Yes, that’s happened, but it was a minivan, not a clown car.

Per household means it’s such a rare, limited and sought-after beer that we’re trying to let folks in different homes try it. Yes, we go to the extent of seeing unique addresses on driver’s license just to make sure those 24 bottles of Dogfish 120 Minute IPA that arrive three times a year make it to twenty-four unique homes on each of its visit. I think, “If only we could be allocated more, like the old days when we could get four, six, or more cases…” And, yes, we’ve seen guys bring in their elderly neighbor from two houses down just to get themselves an extra bottle of that rare brew of the gods.

Adequate allocation for the brewery’s fans who shop with us? For some beers, those days are long gone.

Retailers compete for limited beers

When we opened in 2007 there were about six beer stores in Western Washington. Now the landscape is much different, and I’ve lost track of the number of bottle shops. All the craft beer, including limited-release beer, must be made available not only to beer stores, but also to–

  • Taverns that sell beer to-go,
  • Big box corporate liquor retail chains,
  • Grocery stores,
  • Small liquor, wine, and convenience stores,
  • Restaurants, taverns, and brewpubs.

All this retail competition for the same amount of cases; there are days I am so thankful to receive a single case. At the same time, I’m sad because it’s not enough for my customer demand. I’m also frustrated because if I don’t have enough, my customers will shop elsewhere. (It’s hard to run a business when you see less of your customers.) They’ll go whereever they can get it, and where they can get as many bottles as possible. I am angry that our state’s laws have evolved in a way that means even as a loyal, long-term brewery supporter, the allocation for my shop will diminish as more retailers get into craft beer. But I’m thankful that our state’s laws prevent a big chain from going in and buying up everything, leaving nothing for us independent shops.

Breweries lack control of representation

A brewery cannot tell its Washington State wholesale distributor to sell their beers only into “specialty” beer stores, taverns, brewpubs, and restaurants.

Washington State Liquor Laws require that they make the product available to all liquor licensees. At least this is what I’m told, and what I understand from reading.

So, no brewery can dictate things like, “I don’t want my beer sold into corporate chains,” or “I want to focus on specialty locations, on places who’ve supported my products for years.”

The brewery’s beer is, by law, supposed to be available to all liquor licensees — new, old, big, small. It doesn’t matter how much they support your brand. (But it does.) The laws are supposed to make a fair playing field. They’re supposed to protect the independent shops from losing out on product to big corporate out-of-state chains who’ve got the funds to buy up all the product. The laws are supposed to guarantee we all pay the same price, all have access to the same product. But sometimes there isn’t enough product to go around.

When demand outweighs supply, it’s up to the brewery and distributor to work in tandem to figure it out. And keep it all legal.

When the demand outweighs the product, someone will always be shorted.
And it’s not fun to be shorted. It hurts small business.

Getting enough limited craft beer

As the liquor industry has become privatized in Washington, the demand for craft beer has increased. More and more places are carrying craft beer. This is a challenge for specialty beer stores like mine.

We’ve see other shops go the route of becoming, or opening as, taverns “with off-premise sales” endorsements. But we never wanted to open a tavern. Our dream was to open a nice beer shop where folks could get a variety of beer. They could take their tastebuds on an adventure, but do it in their own places. We’d have no worries about over serving; nor drinking & driving. Everything goes out the door packaged, and no one is intoxicated at time of purchase.

It’s reached a point where there are more retailers seeking out these limited sought-after beers and there isn’t enough to go around. Not in the quantities we used to supply to our customers.

Breweries are making tough decisions. Pull out completely — in effort to squelch battles over product? Focus on local markets? Focus on just a few existing accounts? The legalities of it all, the fairness; how to support existing fans while popularity continues to grow? Decrease, decrease, decrease the amount of product that’s been supplied to long-time independent accounts in order to provide to the new?

A decreased allocation to my store means less for my customers. Less for my customers who are fans of that brewery, of that beer, of my store. It seems like not a month goes by where we’re not arguing on behalf of our customers, doing our best to get an adequate supply. It can be emotionally taxing, physically deprecating.

Selling rare beers in Washington State sometimes leaves me feeling weary.
Time for a beer.

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