Covington, LA — December 7 was the Mystic Krewe of Brew's Christmas party. Lots of fun was had by all, and holy crap I drank myself silly. I can firmly and strongly confirm that Alaskan Smoked Porter is an amazing, amazing beer.
At the party was one of our members from a local grocery store. I didn't get his exact job title, but he was at least in charge of the beer.
He was extremely well informed and articulate about the reality of beer sales in Louisiana. He said that it breaks down like this.
There are alcohol distributor companies in the state. Some specialize in wine and liquor, and some specialize in beer. A distributor pays the state a fee — I think he said around $100 or $200 — PER LABEL (as in per beer product, not per beer company) to register a particular beer for importing into the state. In return, that distributor gets exclusive rights to distribute that beer in the state. These rights last for as long as the distributor cares to hold them. (I think they can sell the rights off if they don't want them anymore.)
Right now, combined, there are around 600 beers registered with the state for distribution inside Louisiana. He said the state used to issue an official list of registered beers, but they stopped doing it. Now you have to contact each distributor and ask what their lineup is or else go to the brewer and ask if anyone distributes their product in Louisiana.
As crappy as this sounds, he said that Louisiana has one of the most agreeable sets of liquor laws in the country, and that any lack of availability of beer in the state is due to a (perceived) lack of demand for the product. A retailer only has so much shelf space and is reluctant to buy a large variety of product if he's not sure it will sell. Also, distributors are often reluctant to provide market-test quantities (a few dozen 6-packs) to help the retailer test their market's acceptance for a given beer, and so retailers are often asked to buy large quantities of a product that they're not sure will sell.
He said that most of the just-beer distributors often won't even touch craft beers because of the perception that product demand is so low that it isn't worth their time. He said that most of his good craft beer suppliers are wine and liquor distributors that are used to handling large varieties — New Orleans restaurants are evidently a huge buyer of quality wines — and so they don't mind carrying a wide variety of craft beer as well. He said he regularly buys from something like 35 different distributors for all his wine, liquor, and beer.
So his take was that if there's a lack of variety in Louisiana it's not due to obstructive liquor laws. It's more due to a perception by the retail-distributorship chain that craft beer won't sell to their market. He said that when he finally decided to build a solid beer selection for his store, he found that there's tons of good beers available from distributors in Louisiana that most retailers won't chance carrying.
It's worth noting, though, that if the state wasn't so hung up on taxing the hell out of liquor and beer, it could just do away with the whole licensing racket and let beer enter the state the same way underwear, mirrors, and televisions do. This would certainly remove some barriers to beer availability, but it's also never going to happen. And again, the Louisiana system is considered flexible compared to most other US states.
His overall take was that if you want a better selection of craft beer in Louisiana, get loud about it and tell your local stores. If they get convinced that they have a real opportunity to make money, there's nothing stopping them from carrying them. And that while there are beers that aren't currently licensed to be sold in Louisiana, if there was a large enough demand, it's only a few hundred dollars for some distributor to pick it up. They just have to see it as a good investment and worth their time.
All in all, talking with this guy really cleared up my understanding of how beer is distributed in the state and what's preventing "favorite beer X" from showing up on the shelves.
Oh yeah, he said the Inbev buyout of Anheuser-Busch was a big game changer for craft beer, because Inbev is so highly invested in what we'd call craft beer in Europe. Inbev stands to beneft from an overall rise in US craft beer sales, whereas Miller and Molson Coors are less well positioned in that market. He said that there's a guy in Louisiana that's an AB/Inbev sales rep who's sole job is to make the rounds to retailers and push craft beer. Inbev's stepping up the push, and we should expect to see the corporate interest in beer variety pick up in the coming years. Also, he said that he wouldn't be surprised if there was a round of buyouts by Molson Coors and Miller of the more popular American craft breweries.
By JONATHAN HANSON, a freelance writer living in Covington, Louisiana.