I’ve had an interesting life treading the world of beer. I remember starting as a doe-eyed enthusiast that believed all craft beer was good beer. I then got indoctrinated in the BJCP, for better and for worse, and believed that style was the almighty measure of quality. From here I began a website that was just about cheesy reviews of beer (the now-defunct pb-rick.com). Ah, it was right around this time that all thirteen readers (or so) convinced me I was a beer expert. Given my new-found (self-appointed) status, I knew it was time for me to share my expertise with the world, thus Pacific Brew News was born (in November 2005). It wasn’t long before I was making road trips to beer fests, introducing myself to many friendly brewers and absorbing things like a sponge. A couple years after PBN started, I was hired by DRAFT Magazine as its Beer Director, a crowning achievement in my beer life, there can be no doubt. This gig put me front-and-center in the beer world – talking to several brewers every day for work, sampling different beers each day too. Man, that was a great gig. Tough gig, too, I might add. What many bloggers don’t appreciate is the power of the deadline, devotion to AP Style Guidelines and the ability to write for a broad audience while sounding informed, but not like a douche-bag. I left the magazine gig to partner up with one of my best friends to start a small brewery.
It’s been over a year since the brewery was founded and as I look back at the various achievements of the past five-plus years, I’m struck at the realization that I knew absolutely nothing about the beer industry when I started this site. Even more, I knew very little about the industry when I was Beer Director for the nation’s largest beer-related publication and talking to brewers on a daily basis. Now, I do believe I have a good palate and a decent ability to articulate my thoughts in words, but knowing a thing or two about beer doesn’t mean jack shit when it comes to understanding how it’s made – and I don’t mean the process of converting malt sugars to alcohol. What’s more, all this realization leaves me with one thought: we have made things overly-complicated.
This realization has fully matured in my planning of a big event in the Sacramento region designed to promote beer and beer vendors in the area. Years back it seemed like a no-brainer, if you want to promote your brand or those that sell your product, you’d be allowed to do so. However, what I failed to recognize are the vast limitations put on brewers, in particular, by the State of California with regards to each business’ ability to tell the world about its beer and events. Case in point: from a purely technical / legal standpoint, it is illegal for a brewery in the State of California to mention in public forums where its beer is sold. In as far as our ABC lawyer is concerned, this means breweries cannot blog, tweet or list retail accounts in the state of California, lest they face a massive fine if the ABC catches the infraction (given that we’re in Sacramento, the State Capital, we toe this line dutifully). For me, personally, this also meant giving up freelance writing about beer – as it is difficult to write about beer when restricted by the law saying I cannot mention an alcohol retailer (hence the number of beer-based commentary here, lately – generic to the core). For all you bloggers with aspirations of opening a brewery and using your social networking skills to promote it: sorry, not in this state.
In this the whole concept has to do with “Value Add”. In a world that was dominated by industrial brewers with deep pockets, it was conceivable that Major Brand A could take out a full-page ad in the local paper promoting its beer at Local Bar A, giving them an assumable unfair advantage in the market. Yes, these rules were put in place to protect the little guys. That said, we no longer live in a world that requires large budgets for self-promotion. With the dawn of Social Media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Four Square (just to name a few) we now have a truly democratic system that requires only the ability to communicate clearly, without the need for a truck-load of money. There is no buy-in for advertising or promotion today and now, more than ever, we see small business on a more level playing field. Should the laws be adjusted to allow brewers to self-promote online, anyone with a computer connection or smart phone can do it. Will some be better at this than others? Yes, of course. But that’s limited only by creativity and ability of the business owner, not the ad budget that can barely afford logoed pint glasses.
The concept of “value add” doesn’t stop with advertising, either. In California it is illegal for a brewery to provide those big buckets you see at beer festivals, the ones kegs sit in with ice. You see, that too is a “value add” for the venue. Pint glasses? Nope. Those can’t even be sold at cost, but must be marked up a certain percentage before sold to a retailer. Meet the brewer nights? Oddly, no. It is a value add to the business if you promote that you will be at a particular bar on a particular night. Shirts, hats and hoodies? No, no and no.
Now, not all of this is bad. I don’t think the small brewers of California want to see all of these laws tossed out. Fact is, the majority of small brewers in the state cannot afford to give away shirts, hats and goodies – not at the level major brewers can. That all has to do with buying power, when you buy 10 cases of an item you just cannot get the same low price at the company that buys 1000 cases of the same item. That’s simple to understand. Oh, and there would be ‘gifts’ made available to retailers like TVs, draft lines, etc that no small brewer could dream of installing in exchange for priority handles at the bar. Hey, this stuff happens (along with a myriad of other practices that I can’t even pretend to have time to delve into).
My plea is simple, ABC. Make it easier for small businesses in this state to succeed. Allow them the possibility to advertise in a zero-buy-in situation, like social media. Allow them to support and even promote other small businesses that support them by carrying their products – by allowing them to list the establishments that carry their brands. Allow breweries to bring essentials to beer festivals, like buckets. You don’t need to mess with the “trinket” laws, they’re find where they are. I’m not asking that you allow brewers to advertise to kids, or to anyone that doesn’t want to know more about their products. In this day and age where information is more than plentiful, end users for the most part get to ‘subscribe’ to the stories and information they want. When a Twitter user follows a brewery, I believe it’s safe to assume they’d like to know where and when an event will be – along with where to find the products they already like. Allow the creativity of free advertising to be the level playing field it is for every other industry in the state.
PS – Can we get rid of the Excise Tax, please?