Tapping the keg of craft beer politics
04/13/2011 10:00 PM
Like many resourceful college students, my brother Terry once tried to brew his own craft beer. Anticipation built while watching the container slowly expand with what we imagined to be yeasty goodness. Any number of friends had to be stopped from prematurely tapping it; quality beer takes tremendous patience. When the time finally came, the brew was tapped, and it was not good — at all.
By definition, craft beers are brewed by small breweries, a few barrels at a time, and with flavor — not appeal to the mass market — in mind. For Terry and anyone else who has aspired to cultivate the perfect beer, the West Loop has just gained a master. Pete Crowley is a highly decorated brewer and co-owner of Haymarket Pub & Brewery on West Randolph Street. He has won over 50 awards for his brewing creations, which include stouts aged in whiskey barrels.
Pete recently opened Haymarket with cofounder John Neurauter to great reviews and enthusiasm from the beer connoisseur community. Time, money and effort were well-spent on the space, hardly recognizable from the failed venues that preceded it. Haymarket is a happy place full of happy, beer-loving people.
I think it would be great if Pete could bring some of that love, through his beers, to restaurants and pubs throughout the area. But what I’ve learned from him is that the seemingly simple task of delivering beer to a bar is anything but simple.
If you’ve never wondered how your favorite beer gets to your lips — beside that you’ve hoisted it there — you are missing a fantastic ride. Illinois has what is called a three-tiered system. Beer is brewed and packaged. Beer is delivered. Beer is sold. Beer is consumed. Between the packaging and the drinking, an industry rules with an iron tapper.
According to the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois, the three-tiered system ensures a number of things, including that alcohol is not sold to minors, is not sold or delivered illegally, that taxes are reliably collected, and that smaller retailers have access to a larger selection than if manufacturers were able to pick and choose to whom they sell.
All of that makes the system sound reasonable, but it also makes it very difficult for small brewers to sell the small amount of beer they are able to produce at any significant profit.
When Pete brewed in Ohio, delivering one of his kegs to a restaurant or pub across the street meant putting it on a dolly and walking it over. In Illinois, if he wants to deliver a Haymarket keg to a restaurant across Randolph Street, he needs to contract with a distributor.
For this reason, the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, and Pete as its current president, has had to delve into the politics of beer. The 50-member Guild is pushing for a legislative fix to the three-tiered system — a system dating back to the repeal of prohibition.
Illinois Senate Bill 88 and House Bill 205 have been introduced in Springfield and if passed, will allow small brewers the right to sell their beer directly to Illinois retailers.
It doesn’t seem outlandish that Pete should be able to bring a keg to the Map Room in Bucktown or Hop Leaf in Andersonville and have a tapping party. And I don’t think that the Millers and Budweisers of the world should consider this a threat. It seems a healthy bit of competition to me.
Pete points out that the goal of self-distributing isn’t to take business away from major distributors, but to grow the industry. Imbibers will have more places to drink their favorite beer as small brewers get their businesses off the ground — think Goose Island circa 1988. The local job market benefits as well. Pete currently employs 85 people at Haymarket Brewery and estimates creating an additional five to 10 jobs in the West Loop if he were able to distribute his product.
Legislators with plans to either stop these bills from coming for a vote, or vote against these bills, should visit their local craft brewer. When I spoke with him, Pete was still waiting for his legislators to take him up on his offer to tour the brewery and get a deeper understanding of what he is trying to accomplish. You can’t talk with him without feeling his passion for brewing the very best, for honoring the traditions of the many styles of beer, and for sharing his creations. You just might also want to help him to do it.
For more on Illinois’ craft breweries, current legislation, and Chicago Craft Beer Week which starts May 19th, you can visit www.illinoisbeer.com.