The Craft Beer Cellar Blacklist

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This last Friday and Saturday were an interesting time for people who follow the Boston area beer scene on Twitter. It started with a back-and-forth between Hopsters owner, Lee Cooper and Craft Beer Cellar owner, Suzanne Schalow. Lee made a number of accusations including trashing the CBC business model, and Suzanne responded by trashing Hopsters. It was pretty ugly, and as a few people said, it was totally inappropriate that the grievences were aired on social media to an audience of mostly customers at one or both businesses. Lee insisted that the reason for his anger was forthcoming (earning some well-deserved comparisons to a certain reality TV star turned political figure). Sure enough later that day Good Beer Hunting published this article, letting readers know that CBC is establishing a set of purchasing guidelines for their franchises, including breweries they are required to stock and others that are forbidden. Another article today from Brewbound does a good job of interviewing people with differing opinions related to this argument as well as pointing out some potential legal issues with the blacklist.

The blacklist revelation is creating the most buzz and strongest reactions. The idea that every CBC should carry brands like Sierra Nevada and Firestone Walker isn’t news to anyone, those breweries are in the sweet spot of wide distribution and high levels of respect. The idea that CBC will prevent it’s stores from selling beer from certain breweries is much more problematic, and seems to be the source of significant consternation in the local beer community. An added complication involved the memo sent to the stores, which was posted on Twitter and cites specific examples of breweries that are on this blacklist. I have a number of thoughts on this, best presented in bullet point form:

-I understand the stated motive here, you want a consumer to walk into any Craft Beer Cellar and know that any bottle they buy will be amongst the highest quality beers available in the area. The franchisees are paying to be part of the Craft Beer Cellar brand, and this brand can be tarnished if some stores are stocking a substantial number of subpar beers.

-The major problem is, who makes these decisions? We can all agree that national/international breweries like Boulevard or Orval make high quality beers. Anyone reading this will probably also agree that Milwaukee’s Best and King Cobra aren’t fit for consumption once you get past the college kegger phase of your life. The problem is that there is a huge grey area in between, and people will disagree on quality of specific beers/breweries that fall into this grey area.

-I am glad that none of the lists are set in stone. It seems that inconsistency is a big issue with some of the breweries cited, and that is much easier to correct than poorly conceived beers. I know a few highly regarded local breweries that had issues with inconsistent batch quality and QC problems in the early days or as they scaled up. Ideally this will act as a wake up call to some of the mediocre breweries and they use it as an opportunity to produce higher quality and more consistent beer.

-I would like to see an additional requirement that all beers carried in the stores have bottled on dates, it’s inexcusable how many still don’t and freshness is so important with many beer styles. They could also do a better job making sure the beers carried at each store were all fresh. They do better than most places, but I’ve seen old beer on the shelves at multiple CBC locations.

-Lee accused the CBC owners of being on the take, deriving some type of profit from the breweries on the must-carry list. I haven’t seen him present any evidence of this (further earning the comparison to said TV personality/political figure), and I don’t believe it to be true. The problem is that it opens the door for these accusations, especially if the lists were to become public.

-Is this policy only for Massachusetts/New England locations? I write a beer blog and still have a hard time keeping track of all of the local breweries, there are many that I’ve barely tried. Unless a brewery is a complete disaster you need to try multiple beers over multiple batches to even start to make a decision on quality. I can imagine that a few people have developed opinions on most of the breweries in MA, but CBC now has stores in 13 states. It would be nearly impossible to judge the quality of every brewery available in each of those locations.

-The leaked memo is problematic, it specifically calls out three breweries, all of which are local, small and relatively new. In fairness, it was an internal memo, and it was Lee Cooper, owner of one of the breweries on the blacklist, who posted it on Twitter. I won’t mention the breweries here, you can find the document easily enough if you’re curious, but I was surprised the names listed. I’ve had beers that I’ve really enjoyed from some of them. Now that everything is out in the open it really sucks for their businesses. With so much competition in the marketplace reputation is key, and bad PR like this can be a huge blow.

-And please stop reminding me that small and local doesn’t mean good. I realize that a beer being local doesn’t make it better, and being small doesn’t excuse producing a poor product. The point I was trying to make on twitter last night was that the negative publicity is a lot more damaging to a small business than it would be to a national brewery or a subsidiary of big beer.

-It is clear that some of the franchisees are unhappy about this new policy and/or the way this was all handled. One mentioned it to Brewbound on condition of anonymity. It was also clear that while this argument was going down on twitter, and the details of the memo were being released, a couple of the CBC franchises posted on social media that they had beers from the effected breweries in stock. One was even hosting a tasting from one of the blacklist breweries this weekend. This could have been a coincidence, but it seemed like a not-so-subtle dig at the new policy.

-I understand the frustration too, these franchisees are businesses that are trying to make money, they don’t want to be told to stock beers that won’t sell or told they can’t stock beers that sell well. I think they are also worried about potentially alienating customers who have relationships with effected brands. There is clearly also some disagreement about the quality of some of these breweries, and you have to wonder how much the owners of the franchisees were consulted before these lists were made.

-To wrap up (because this is already kind of long), I’ve always been a big fan of Craft Beer Cellar. I can safely say that the vast majority of beers reviewed on Hoppy Boston have been purchased at CBC stores, the flagship store in Belmont and the Newton store were near my old apartment, now I usually go to Framingham. This policy won’t effect my patronage of the stores, I am glad they are doing everything they can to be the premier craft beer store locally and nationally. I will be very interested to see how this all plays out though.

 

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