Off the Beer Grid: Why your favorite brewery isn’t available in New York
Sorry, folks. You can search up and down the island of Manhattan to find beers from these brewers, but you won’t find them.
It happens on a daily basis to beer store and bar owners all over New York. The questions that, to the industry insider, have an obvious answer. But to those unaccustomed to how the beer industry functions, the questions are fast and furious and almost always net a disappointing response.
Every day, their customers ask:
- Do you guys have Pliny the Elder?
- Do you have Fat Tire on tap?
- Do you carry Bell’s Two-Hearted?
- When is your store getting a shipment of Three Floyds?
- Where in the city can I get Surly Darkness?
The answers to those questions are: no, no, no, never, and nowhere.
Sorry to disappoint you. New York is a melting pot of people from not just different parts of the world, but different parts of the country. Plenty of craft beer drinkers from the Midwest and West Coast have been exposed to these brands for years - and some of them move to New York only to find that access to their favorite regional beers has dried up completely.
Of course, the answer of “no” is simple, but the answer to the follow up question of “why not?” can be more complicated. In the end, though, it boils down to one explanation: these breweries - for a variety of reasons - do not distribute in New York.
To start, in order for a brewery to distribute and sell its beers here, the brewery and beers must be registered with the New York State Liquor Authority. Registration of a brewery and its beers costs a pretty nice chunk of change - $10,000 in bond, plus a couple hundred dollars per beer brand. In addition, they have to enter into a costly legal process to finalize a deal for an in-state distributor to receive their beer. To some brewers, especially the smaller ones, this is not money well-spent. But it’s especially not worth it if they can’t make enough beer for them to ship to New York.
“So what if they don’t ship to New York,” you might say. What’s stopping a bar or store from going to the brewery - or a store or wholesaler out of state - and bringing the beers back here for sale? Plenty. If a bar or store gets caught selling unregistered beer in New York, they could face steep fines. And it’s not just because the SLA would question the quality of beer not received directly from an in-state distributor. By buying beer and reselling it on the black market, a bar or store is evading paying the proper state taxes on it. In 2008, when the Upper East Side’s Mad River Bar & Grille (1442 Third Ave., at 82nd St., Upper East Side) sold bottles of unregistered New Glarus Spotted Cow to celebrate their status as New York’s official Wisconsin alumni bar, they were fined $20,000 - and worse still, the beer was confiscated.
Not only does selling illegal beer potentially put the bar or store in hot water with authorities, but often the brewer isn’t happy about it, either. In 2007, Bell’s owner Larry Bell took to Beer Advocate to excoriate bars in New York City that he had heard were illegally selling kegs of beer. He was actually losing money from the cooperage fees he paid on kegs that would never be returned to Bell’s. He took a hard stand, since he didn’t want to look to competing brewers as though he was condoning illegal activity. “Bell’s has a reputation of being a law abiding company that follows Federal and State regulations,” Bell said at the time. “I would like to keep that image.” There is no denying that there’s demand for his beer in New York City, but he actively chose not to distribute here, and wants that decision to be respected.
Once a brewery does decide to distribute in New York, keeping up with demand is the bigger hindrance that they have to consider. Even though New York City has a very modest rate of craft beer consumption compared to “beer havens” like Denver and Portland, it’s the largest city in the country, making it the largest craft beer market in the country. The cost to produce enough beer to meet the demands of a market this big is daunting even for larger breweries like Colorado’s New Belgium, whose second brewery in Asheville, North Carolina - set to opne in 2015 - will likely have to open before they can meet the demand of large markets like New York, Philadelphia, and New England. Great Lakes, an Ohio craft brewer whose beers are widely available Upstate, registered their beers with the State Liquor Authority, but opted not to distribute in the New York City market because of the brewing capacity it would demand. The same goes for Bell’s - who says they’re likely to make the same move when they start selling beer in New York State.
It’s not just brewing capacity, of course. A brewer may have the capacity to meet New York City’s demand, but at what cost to other markets? Would they have to pull out of other markets or limit their shipments to smaller markets, upsetting consumers who are already used to having access to their products? Brewers like Stone, Avery, and Dogfish Head pulled out of some markets two years ago because they had spread themselves too thin to meet the growing demand of their key markets. Even the beloved and often-worshipped Russian River had to pull out of Washington State in January. It’s painful and it leads to disappointment, but a brewer would rather supply a market with a sufficient amount of beer than make it so scarce that it rarely gets attention.
For more distant breweries, shipping costs and efficiencies are a major issue, too. It’s one reason why Oskar Blues opened a brewery in Brevard, North Carolina late last year, and why Sierra Nevada is building a brewery in that state as well. The environmental impact of shipping beer across the country certainly played a major role in the decision, and the economics would suggest Sierra Nevada can eventually recoup the costs they would spend shipping beer clear across the country from Chico, California, despite the capital a new brewery requires. Even Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes, the 5th largest craft brewer in the United States, has kept their growth closer to home, choosing to meet the growing demand of their West Coast markets rather than expand into newer, more distant ones. Despite its huge success over the past 25 years, only after a recent expansion has their beer crossed the Mississippi River.
Sometimes, though, the reasons a brewery doesn’t ship its beers to New York are as simple as… keeping it simple. “As goofy as it sounds, we don’t want to be a big brewery,” New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey said when, in the wake of the Mad River incident, he was questioned about why he doesn’t distribute beer outside Wisconsin. “We want to control our growth.” Many breweries are too small to meet New York’s demand, and don’t want to become big just because they can.
But the New York City market doesn’t always get overlooked. To some brewers, it’s an important beer market that can make or break a brand. Last year, Alaska’s Midnight Sun chose New York as just the sixth state to receive their beer. When Vermont’s The Alchemist sent beer to markets outside their home state, New York was one of the first places they went. When choosing New York as the first East Coast market they’d enter, Nebraska Brewing’s Paul Kavulak made clear, “we believe highly populated areas and areas with a broad appreciation for craft beer in general are perfect for our beers.” Their decision to go straight to New York was derided initially by those in the beer community, but has clearly paid off in further expansion. And while both Avery and Great Divide pulled out of markets across Upstate New York in 2011, they’ve always maintained their presence in New York City.
In the end, though, New York beer drinkers should be grateful for what they have instead of complaining about what they don’t have. New York City boasts one of the best selections of both American and imported craft beer of any place in the entire nation. In fact, we’d venture a guess that there are places in Europe that don’t boast the variety of beer that New York has. Just enjoy what’s available here. When you travel to a place that does receive beer that New York doesn’t, it’ll make that first sip taste even better.
Editor’s Note: A portion of this article was originally published in February 2012.