If you were to ask fellow beer drinkers to describe their favorite brewery, where would they start? They’d probably mention things like stainless-steel tanks, certain flagship and seasonal offerings, pot-bellied growlers, the smell of steeped barley, intermittent beardedness, the tall rubber boots… What about their favorite retailer? Perhaps they’d start with the beer aisle or the line of bar stools, the chalkboard menu, the pub fare, the secret beer selection they keep in the back, their favorite bartenders…
But what if you asked about their favorite distributor?
A good number of people will be confused by this question. A few might reasonably presume you’ve had one too many. The slightly more adventurous ones will make an honest attempt, at least. Trucks with brewery logos. Folks wielding handcarts… A warehouse?
Of the individual components of the three-tier system that governs how beer travels to the consumer in the U.S.—from producers (breweries), to distributors and wholesalers, to retailers—the middle tier is generally the least visible by a wide margin. Distributors function as the go-between: charged with transporting beer efficiently and safely while (exceptions are plentiful and will be discussed below) operating independently of the other two tiers.
It’s also arguably the most politically charged tier, with the exact details legislated on a state-by-state basis. Those details can skew in favor of a state’s larger or smaller breweries, depending on whether things like self-distribution are allowed (permitting a brewery to serve as both producer and distributor) and whether such allowances have a size limit. Arguments can be made that the three-tier system inhibits the growth of the U.S. craft beer scene, while similarly convincing arguments can be made that it’s the reason we have one at all (especially when looking at distribution laws in other countries). The truth is, almost always, somewhere in-between, and often dependent on where one’s positioned in relation to things. To solidify the point: this is the only tier you’ll hear beer drinkers arguing about getting rid of entirely.
For avid argument seekers, it’s the perfect topic to add to one’s repertoire.
Politics aside, the three-tier system and its variations thereof ultimately serve to shape the selection of craft beer available at one’s local retailer. Breweries both large and small have to negotiate the resultant constraints and opportunities afforded by the ever-changing details of the middle tier. And craft beer’s continued success hinges on its ability to do so effectively.