The recent investigations/accusations made by the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission into pay-to-play allegations against Craft Beer Guild LLC in April, and subsequent investigation and charges made against some of the largest bar groups in Boston in September, are just the tip of the tap lines, and everyone in the industry knows it.
This isn’t a well-kept secret after all, nor is it the be-all-end-all practice by which beer companies—and to be fair, wine and liquor brands—acquire draught handles and product placement in on-premise businesses. But it’s pervasive enough that in tough times and an ever-increasingly competitive market it’s the low-hanging fruit and go-to method behind this malt, mash, and merlot madness. So now that the ABCC is paying attention, where do we go from here?
The answer is nowhere. Bars and restaurants, and liquor stores, have a tremendous amount of pressure put on them daily when it comes to carrying new and high-volume products, and as such have little choice but to engage in favoritism and/or enticement. That comes in many forms, not just buying tap lines or shelf space: A pair of Red Sox tickets here, an ad buy there, and before you know it, the scale has been tipped in somebody’s favor. If anyone thinks that’s now disappeared or will no longer take place, they’re a fool. The problem, though, isn’t so much that this takes place, with or without the consumer’s knowledge, or that brands actually engage in this practice (either directly or with the help of a distributor), but rather that the Mass ABCC doesn’t know how to deal with it today and certainly hasn’t had a clue for the last 20 years.
What’s the problem, though, right? Consumers will always decide with their wallets and quality trumps kickback, right? Maybe, and the idea that everyone is on a level playing field is a legitimate argument, but in the case of say, Fenway Park or even a chain of Irish bars with different names but the same owner, consumers will also drink whatever is in front them (bars are tastemakers and brand-makers), and these venues have a legitimate need to streamline and commodify their assets during that process. At least, that’s the assumption. So how does the ABCC address this and at the same time create some parity of access for all?
Fuck if I know… but instead of suddenly waking up to the obvious practices that have gone on for too long without oversight, maybe they should put together an advisory board of brewers and distributors and find a way that allows brands and bars to collaborate within an acceptable framework, instead of spending time and energy investigating a tiny fraction of the industry that actually got nailed for the practice.
Larger brands will always have the resources to push smaller brands aside with these tactics, but smaller brands are not innocent in trying to fend them off with the same wink and nod. If the ABCC and the brands and bars now caught up in this keg roll want real change, they all have to sit at the grownup table together and figure out a solution beyond fines and fiefdom.