The Ethics of Craft Beer

Socrates enjoys a glass of CBS while contemplating the
ethics of aftermarket beer sales.
When I first began my exploration into the craft beer realm, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. No, I'm not referring to the vast number of breweries, beer styles and varieties that are at a drinker's disposal, but instead the amount of ethical discussions and disagreements that take place in craft beer communities. Basically, I would never have guessed that craft beer was such a breeding ground for debates on moral relativism and what is right and wrong in terms of craft beer economics and business practices. 'Beer karma' is a phrase that seems to get thrown out more and more often, and it gets someone such as myself thinking about what really is right, what's wrong, and what we are supposed to do when there are no helpful laws in place to regulate issues that frustrate better beer consumers so often.

Of course we all are aware of one of the biggest problems in craft beer, which is the constant battle against macro brands for shelf space, tap space and market share. The film Beer Wars gave us an in-depth glimpse into these issues, but occasionally we still get harsh reminders of how our respective craft beer 'Davids' are constantly battling the macro 'Goliaths'. Most recently, a news story hit where a Flying Dog rep in Washington D.C. alleged that MillerCoors had paid a bar to remove a Flying Dog draft line and replace it with a MillerCoors brand. While the claim was later redacted, stories like this still bring to light major issues that smaller breweries across the nation face constantly. Similarly, we as consumers face ethical issues when it comes to purchasing and accessing the products we want.

With the recent fiascos induced locally by the Chocolate Ale and Hopslam releases, it only seemed appropriate to touch on these issues since they're already being discussed via social media outlets. I've seen many frustrations expressed recently with various retailers' business practices when it comes to limited releases. Price gouging is consistently at the top of the list of retailer complaints. As a recent example, Beer Cave in Lenexa shamelessly priced their Chocolate Ale bottles at $25 each. Of course, they didn't feel guilty about it or issue an apology until AFTER all the bottles had sold, but they tried to deflect blame on Boulevard for not allotting enough to Kansas City. Strange, since other stores in the metro didn't seem to have a problem charging MSRP or at least close to it. Of course, the fact still remains that Beer Cave still sold all of their bottles, so to them it's not a problem, and I'm sure they'll practice the same habits for other limited releases simply because THEY CAN. The demand is there, the money gets thrown down on the counter, so what do they care? Just like Mike's Liquor can break open their Hopslam six packs and sell them in chunks of 3 for $10 each and when customers question the practice, answer rudely with responses like "Well you don't have to buy it, do ya?". There's either no law regulating these types of activities, or if there are, some retailers do everything they can to ride that thin line as closely as possible to what's legal and what's illegal. When the rules are so flexible, some people will always take the chance to bend them.

Then again, we speak of retailers and express anger for their less-than-ethical actions when it comes to the sale of limited release or high demand items. But we as consumers take part in actions that raise eyebrows as well. How many times has a special release ended up on Craigslist or Ebay within hours of it hitting store shelves? At first glance, this black market-style activity seems like a close cousin of a retailer gouging prices, but also comes with it's own blurry line of ethical behavior. I'll admit, I was on a flagging frenzy when Chocolate Ale bottles were hitting Craigslist and being sold for $50, $60, even $75 a bottle. To me, that is absolutely ridiculous. But what about Ebay? Does it make it more acceptable because people are given the opportunity to bid and decide how much they are willing to spend? Where does consumer-generated aftermarket activity of craft beer fall in the 'right vs. wrong' gray area? Are Craigslist and Ebay sales just a monetized extension of bottle trading, which is a fairly well-accepted practice in the community? And besides us as drinkers, how do breweries feel about people turning a profit on their work? I would imagine, that as a whole, they aren't especially fond of it, but that's just my assumption.

The answer might seem to lie in a need to have specific laws regulating the above actions, but then again, our cry as craft beer drinkers tends to call for LESS government regulation than more. As evidenced by our lovely Kansas liquor store laws, an overabundance of regulation is not always (read: pretty much never) a good thing. But, on the same note, shouldn't we as consumers be a little more protected? Is the only viable response that we are able to offer a verbal protest, by either raising these issues to actual employees or using the Internet as a sounding board? I'm not going to pretend I have an answer, because I don't. It's a daunting task trying to wrap one's head around all the issues that lie within the regulation of alcohol sales while also factoring in my own selfish desires as a craft beer drinker.

Whether these issues of beer ethics will ever be solved is doubtful, in my opinion. And while there are certainly problems that seem to consistently arise in the craft beer community, there are always two sides to every story. Where one person may see price gouging, another person sees a business doing what they are legally entitled to in order to make money. What one person sees as shady aftermarket activity, another sees as a legitimate way for a regular person to make money, just like selling another piece of their property. If there's one thing we are as craft beer drinkers, it's opinionated, but those opinions don't always align.

Certainly when I purchased my first mix-a-six pack at the liquor store and slowly inching my way into craft beer, I never predicted I'd encounter these types of craft beer-related debates and the passionate, angry, dissenting opinions that they fuel. But they're there, so they are worth talking about.

Sound Off: What are your thoughts on some of the issues mentioned above? Are there other problems that you feel need to be recognized or discussed?

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