Craft Beer Gets Uppity

Last year, Bell’s, a world-class craft brewery out of Michigan, pulled all its beers out of Illinois. The beers were hugely popular, especially in Chicago, but Bell’s, which is run by Larry Bell, had had its distribution rights sold to a large distributor without the brewery’s approval. (In almost all states, the three-tier system, which is a legacy of Prohibition, prevents breweries from selling directly to retailers or bars: The product first has to have a distributor.) It’s a very complicated story, but Larry Bell figured that the only way he could prevent the new distributor from having his account was to yank his entire portfolio of beers from the state. (If you’re confused, here’s a full accounting in all its glorious legal minutiae.)

That’s bad news for the discerning beer-drinking residents of Illinois, of course, but why should you care? Well, as the Wall Street Journal tells us, Bell’s is trying to re-enter the Chicago market with a new brand (whose beers are called Kalamazoo, where the brewery’s headquartered, and are made with different recipes) under a new distributor.

That’s legally complicated—and the Journal gives a good explanation of why—and it puts Larry Bell among a number of craft brewers who are fighting the good fight against often-rigged liquor laws. Bell’s return to Chicago is “perhaps the most audacious in a string of recent efforts by small-batch ‘craft’ brewers in the U.S. to try to assert more control over how their beer is sold as they gain in popularity—and clout,” says the Journal. Craft brewers have never had clout before; they’ve just been happy their beers show up on shelves. What you see at the store is sometimes only what a distributor decides you see—what makes it worth the distributor’s while. It’ll be interesting if the shelves look any different once craft breweries, high on market share, have that power.

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