Popular Craft Beer Chain Vows to Crack Down on Bad Beer

Austin Ray

THE GIST
Craft Beer Cellar wants to be seen as more than a chain of high-end beer stores, as the company now seems to be vying to become the industry’s arbiter of taste itself.
 
Beginning in 2017, the company’s 28 stores will carry a set of “required and highly recommended beers,” wherever they’re sold across the chain’s 13-state footprint. Conversely, and much more controversially, CBC will also implement a “Do Not Sell” list, prohibiting its outlets from carrying other brands that don’t live up to its standards. Reasons for landing on the banned list include “[a] lack of adherence to style, off flavors, and inconsistency in quality,” the company says.
 
“We want to represent to our customer the very best of the beers we have available to us,” says Kate Baker, CBC co-founder, in a statement. “Whether it is a local brewery, or one from further afield, one thing is true: if it doesn’t stand up to the beers that are currently on our shelves, we will not carry it.”
 
The company adds that neither list is written in stone, promising to be “constantly evaluating new beers and re-evaluating established ones.”

WHY IT MATTERS 
Since launching in 2010, Craft Beer Cellar has never been shy about upholding certain values that seem to extend beyond beer in a sense, carrying an air of moral obligation.

An example: the company opted not to sell brands owned by multinational companies, meaning you could never find highly regarded beers from the likes of, say, Goose Island, on its shelves. But as its customers learned in 2014, those values are subject to change. A mere two days after Founders sold a minority interest to Mahou San Miguel. Not selling Founders would’ve been antithetical to the store’s own business interests, so it decided to update its policy.

This move is different. While ownership is irrefutable, a beer’s fundamental quality is characterized subjectively and varies from drinker to drinker. This is why the Brewers Association is so careful to define the “craft brewer” rather than “craft beer” itself. With its new policy, though, CBC is offering a self-styled definition of “craft beer,” the actual liquid, for its own purposes. It’s a nebulous one, though. And because the company has 11 new stores in planning (on top of the pre-existing 28 across 13 states), its authority on the subject is only becoming more amplified. Which could be bad news for those on the blacklist.

Consider a scenario: a drinker walks into their local CBC looking for a local brand, only to find out the store doesn’t carry it on grounds that it’s of demonstrably poor quality. That brewery might lose that customer forever and will be invariably angry. Is that CBC’s fault? No, probably not. And Baker has already sought to assuage those concerns, adding in the statement, “We are not afraid to have open conversations with breweries about our thoughts and, in fact, have been able to hold some really positive and constructive dialogue about our findings.”

But CBC’s leadership is pretty outspoken, making it tough to imagine this won’t boil over at some point. Just today, in an unrelated spat, Suzanne Schalow, the other CBC co-founder, traded barbs with Boston area beer outfit Hopsters on Twitter. “Your character is as outstanding as your beer!” she seethed at whomever runs the Hopsters account.
 
Of course, stores can carry whatever they please. But if these blacklists are ever made public (explicitly by the company or as observed and published by astute customers), it doesn’t take much to imagine the conflicts that could arise. And that tension will only heighten as CBC’s voice grows more prominent in the marketplace.

—Dave Eisenberg

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Craft Beer Cellar Announces Changes for 2017 [Craft Beer Cellar]