Our Opinion: Beer distribution reform still bound in red tape

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"There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip," as the old proverb goes. For craft brewers, including some in Berkshire County, the cup has been splattering all over the floor for quite a while thanks to Massachusetts' archaic alcohol laws. According to The Boston Globe Friday, a task force under the supervision of state treasurer Deborah Goldberg has identified 12 separate issues having to do with regulations surrounding marketing, trade, distribution and retail sales in the alcoholic beverage industry. Ms. Goldberg has asked for a substantial revamp to make the law reflect 21st century realities, but thanks to a long-ago hardening of positions, the task force's prospects for coming up with substantial changes by its year-end deadline appear to be slim.

Working against meaningful overhaul in the law is the fact that the industry is set in its ways; a 1971 law established that brewers, once they have worked with a distributor (without whom they cannot transport their product to stores and taverns) for six months, are tied to that distributor for all time. This 46-year-old regulation dates to when there were few small independent breweries, and distributors and mass brewers enjoyed a symbiotic relationship.

Since that time, the craft beer industry has grown enormously to claim 15 percent of the total beer sales volume in Massachusetts as of 2016 — which is double the national average, according to the state's beer distributors. The distributors claim that they put enormous effort and resources into promoting brands and developing markets, and should be allowed to benefit from their up-front investment. On the other, the small craft brewers see the law as potentially strangling their businesses.

"What's happened along the way is that the distributors are now in a really powerful seat because they're controlling the entire market," said Bill Heaton, owner of Big Elm Brewing in Sheffield, in The Eagle last year. "The only way to get out of (a contract) is to pay the distributor to buy your brand back. For a small brewery that's impossible." In other words, craft brewers are denied the same choices other businesses can make when a relationship turns sour.

There will be a legislative hearing in the State House next month on this issue, but the battle has been continuing for years, and the forces of the status quo have enough lobbying clout to resist meaningful reform. Fortunately, Berkshirites who love their local suds have the luxury of heading straight to their favorite nearby craft brewery for a tall, cold one.


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