Hop-Ed: Dealing with the Brunt of Boston’s Pay-to-play Practices

Photo by Tavallai (via Flickr).
Written by Alex Wilking

By Alex Wilking
BU News Service

It came out last week that Boston is, once again, corrupt. But this time, the villains aren’t mobsters like Whitey Bulger, but the state’s Craft Brewers Guild.

The Guild – based in Everett — was accused by the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission of spending close to $120,000 over the past five years to illegally buy taps at a dozen Boston bars. The Boston Globe broke the story last weekend. According to the piece, the Guild did admit to conducting such practices and stated they should be allowed to because every other facet of industry does.

Shocking as all this may sound, most Bostonian craft beer drinkers weren’t shocked at all.

Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project warned us about this foul play in 2014. The Somerville-based brewing company (which shut down in December) shed light on the issue when co-owner Dan Paquette went on a Twitter tirade scolding the actions of the city’s bars. You can read a summary of his remarks here.

(Full disclosure: I worked as a content writer for Pretty Things for a few months before they closed.)

Of course, the accusations perked the ears of the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which led to the charges that recently surfaced. The city’s investigation hasn’t cited any breweries involved in the Guild’s illicit actions, and it’s unclear whether said breweries knew all of this was going on, or if they were actively involved. Until that information comes to light, it’s hard to single out any breweries for foul play.

It does list a few bars though. Game on Fenway near Kenmore Square and Gather in the Seaport area are among five bars being charged with accepting the Guild’s bribes.

Pay-to-play practices in the beer industry are a federal offense, enacted during prohibition to keep large breweries from monopolizing bars (joke’s on us though). And there are other cases being examined throughout the U.S. As the Globe noted, the decision here will set the precedent for how similar accusations are handled in the future. It seems like Boston might just set reform in motion.

I can’t attest to whether these dubbed “pay-to-play” practices are bad for the consumer, since a drinker’s tastes are so subjective. They’re certainly not fair for competing local breweries that can’t afford to sell their beer around town without the backing of a Brewers Guild. While I personally don’t support the actions of the Guild, I imagine that most drinkers aren’t scrutinizing tap selections while they’re out.

My hope is that they start. The Guild went to great lengths to hide their slimy practices, including doctoring marketing invoices and hiding transactions behind fake companies, according to Food & Wine. They clearly don’t care what your drink of choice is. Boston’s bars aren’t going to complain anytime soon either — most are making money off this system.

If Boston wants more local beer, equal opportunity taps, and a broader selection at our city’s bars, consumers are going to have to speak up like Pretty Things did.

And whether you think you want those added options or not, the implications of the Guild’s punishment will really put this all into perspective. According to Forbes, our state’s Guild has a few choices in responding to the charges against them — they can pay 50 percent of their gross profits, appeal to a higher court, or take a distribution suspension. The latter will sting.

The Guild manages distribution for breweries big and small in Massachusetts— Lagunitas, Allagash, even Germany’s Ayinger. A halt on circulation would not only limit what local bars could tap, but mire local breweries, most of whom are dependent on the Guild to buoy their beer sales. According to the Globe, the Guild promised that come whatever may, their distribution will continue uninterrupted. It’s unclear right now if that will ring true.

Even worse, Pretty Things is being branded as the whistle blower who started it all. Rather than leaving a legacy founded on the colorful and vibrant company they were, the media is making them the face of this controversy. Ironically, I found it difficult not mention them because of their integral role in this scandal. Many speculate that these events caused the company to close down in the first place. But moving forward, let’s stick to talking about how great its 7-year run was.

Pay-to-play’s hold on Boston presents a disgusting web of extortion, fraud and deceit. And in almost every scenario, the consumer is being duped. We can only hope that things change in the future, but that shouldn’t stop us from speaking out to our bars, to the Guild — let’s tell them that we want more local beer, more options, and more transparency in the future. And let’s not respond with hate or intolerance, but rather with constructive ideas to make our city the best drinking hole on the east coast.

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