Hops Wars :: Boston vs. Chicago – The Politics of Beer

by Paul Ciminero on February 25, 2011

Or “Why can’t I get my favorite draft beer at my local bar?”

Chicago Beat reporter Paul Ciminero, a former winery rep and our Beer Doctor, Dr. Carol Westbrook, who clearly has put in some Boston Bar Time (see The Beer Clinic :: “Boston is a Great Beer City: AKA Forget Sam Adams”) have an e-chat.

Paul, I’m asking you this because you know a bit about the distribution systems of alcoholic beverages. Why do you think it is that Boston seems to be such a GOOD BEER TOWN and Chicago appears to be a LOUSY BEER TOWN?

What I mean is, when I go into a restaurant or bar in Chicago, 99% of the time it seems to me the draft list sucks.  It’s either Bud products, Miller products or Guinness products—which for me is boring, boring, boring.  When I go into a bar or restaurant in Boston, I rarely see the big domestic brands on draft. The draft list might include a Harpoon or a Sam Adams draft, but the rest of the taps contain very good, interesting independent craft beers, like Victory, Dogfish Head, Rogue, BBC, etc.

Do you think the Chicago bars have some kind of requirement by zoning, or are they locked into inflexible distributors and will lose their franchise if they go independent,  or is it racketeering and they have to buy certain beers and pay off distributor guys?  When we find a bar in Chicago that serves independent craft beers it is amazing, and the bar is usually featured in publications like Time Out and the Reader.  But in Boston it seems every bar is at least this good or better and no one gives a darn.

Carol, the simple answer is…most beer distributorships in the Midwest began as original franchises of either Miller or Bud and remain so today. Distribution originated in the early days (19th century and pre-prohibition) from German family breweries predominately based in Milwaukee (Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, Old Style, or St. Louis ‘Busch family (Bud) or Griesedieck (Falstaff)) Those various breweries were founded by German immigrants who brought their German style lager recipes from the homeland and started production to quench the thirst the immigrant working class. In fact each local tavern in Chicago seemed to support one family brewery or another. A perfect example is the Schlitz moniker on Schuba’s tavern. The tavern was originally built by the Schlitz Brewery in 1903 as a neighborhood saloon that featured Schlitz products. http://www.schubas.com/The+Bar/The%20Bar

Distributor families are very powerful “machines” today and have strong Illinois political connections.  So as in Illinois politics; in beer it’s what is generally referred to as “pay to play.” I’m assuming you read the Crain’s Chicago Business article in the November 22, 2010 edition titled “Pay to Play infects the Chicago Beer market”.(ed. To see the Crain’s piece, http://tinyurl.com/6fejagx You need to register upon arrival)

I have no idea what the other major breweries and their distributors are doing in the Boston market.  Each state has different regulations when it comes to alcohol.

But I bet you can enter any sports bar or Cheers like watering hole in Beantown and I’m positive you’ll see the “Big Three”: Bud, Coors, and Miller

Microbreweries are a fairly recent invention; the early guys like Anchor (which always had to have refrigeration as a stipulation in their contract)and later Sierra Nevada gravitated toward wine distributors or small German based importers like Glunz in Chicago but most big imports like Heineken, Grolsch, Beck’s, were first distributed by a Bud or Miller franchisee. In fact craft beers and “Craft Beer Distributors” are a new and fairly recent phenomenon. For more about this and “Pay to Play” see the attached link to a great local Chicago Beer Blog, “The Beer Spot”. http://www.thebeerspot.com/forum/index.php?topic=7680.0

Believe me, in many ways it’s probably the same way in Boston. Walk in any bar around Fenway Park and you’ll see the “Big Three” handles.  The three major U.S beer companies put tons of pressure on their distributor/franchisee’s to have at least one tap in every watering hole and since most of those larger distributors now carry smaller specialty beers to offer variety, the craft beers still take a back seat to the big guys. Today even the small craft brewers can be part of a large distributor’s portfolio because big beer distributors have ESTABLISHED DISTRIBUTION and want to offer specialty beers, as a way of enhancing their “high end” book.  In many ways that’s the only way a Rogue or New Belgium is going to get an initial foothold in taverns and restaurants.

So IT REALLY IS THAT WAY IN BOSTON AS WELL. (Apparently you’re just going into the cool accounts in Beantown).

If you go into a “gastro-pub” here, (a scene that has recently exploded in Chicago) you are NOT likely to see Bud or Miller on tap (only in bottle – You ARE likely to see Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) in cans because millennials think it’s retro and cool to drink).  In Chicago, the Publican doesn’t carry the big guys on tap.  Look at the Map Room and Edgewater Lounge’s draft list, http://edgewaterlounge.com/drinkmenu/

In those haunts the taps are really cool and change monthly. Similarly, at Old Town Social, Hopleaf, or Grafton’s Pub http://www.thegrafton.com/beer-list/ you won’t see the big guys draft handles. (Yet they ALL carry them in bottles)  Most “fine dining” restaurants here avoid the “Big Three” on draft (some may offer it begrudgingly by the bottle.)

Beer Distribution and consumption is based on consumer mass marketing. (Just watch TV on Sundays and look at the billions spent in advertising by the “Big Three”) In Boston (as in Chicago) the average Joe drinks the “Big Three” and here’s the shocker Carol, IT’S NO DIFFERENT IN BOSTON.  The average consumer recognizes those brands, they are MASS marketed. You and I on the other hand, as consumers, are part of a small, but growing, minority…a minority that will always be just that, a minority. (Probably under 10%). It’s amazing that Guinness and Heineken have a pretty good size market share in the U.S, but it’s just small (probably under 20% I’m guessing) compared to the “Big Three” and that’s grown from probably under 10% over 30 years ago.

Affluent, educated, upper middle class and wealthy boomers, young millennials, and consumers who want to experience “the good life” are gravitating towards fine wine and craft beers.  The average “Joe Working Class consumer” may step up from a Bud, Coors, or Miller to a Heineken on occasion or make it his/her brand by equating that brand with a better “class’ of life they’re aspiring to.  That’s a “core’ consumer block on the rise, and even large imported brands (like Heineken for example) want to be an important part of that market. Craft and Specialty beers are marketed to a small but growing peripheral consumer block at best.

BTW…The Busch family SOLD Budweiser to Grolsch Beer’s parent company (InBev Brands) a few years ago so it’s no longer American owned.  Why did InBev Brands spend 7 billion for the brand?? Distribution!

I hope I sort of answered the question.

PS: Here’s another interesting link.  Just found some stat’s to compare about Boston and specialty beers: http://www.beveragebusiness.com/departments/beer.php

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve February 19, 2011 at 12:19 am

I lived in Boston for a couple decades. I’m a native New Englander.

You’ve made some great comparisons. My experience of Chicago was quite different. I went to the Hopleaf & Farragut’s on my first day’s visit there. The only other bar I had beer at in my short stay was Piece Pizzeria & Brewery. I left the city after three days thinking, “What a great beer city.”

One major difference in the two cities is pricing. Boston is a very expensive city to enjoy good beer. Happy hour pricing on alcohol does not happen. At all. Imagine my delight at attending a $2.50 draft night on my first Chicago visit.

Boston is a great beer city, but if you want to see an unimaginative selection of beer, go to a Red Sox game. Sam Adams is as adventurous as the folks who run Fenway park allow. And you have to walk for it. Budweiser is ubiquitous; mostly because they sunk some money into a remodel and have a (fizzy yellow) beer pavilion looking out from on high over right field.

This has me wonder what kind of beer is available at Wrigley Field?


Carol February 19, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Old Style. Also known as Dog Style in this town : – )
In spite of the fact that Haray Caray was a “Cubs Fan – Bud Man.”
Here’s a nice summary, which calls Wrigley “The Biggest Beer Garden in the World.)
Sox Park, which I believe is now called US Cellular Field, has a few small concessions that serve beers of the world in bottles, such as Corona, but the only draft beer is Miller Lite.
Let’s face it, sports stadiums are all about the money, and mass-market beer makes financial sense to the owners.
Your comments about Boston vs. Chicago are interesting and fun. I’ve drunk in both places. And each city has its share of DIVES, too. As Paul points out above, if you’re visiting the high-end pubs you’ll get better beer in either place. And who doesn’t read the reviews and pick the best beer bars when you are traveling?
I still maintain that per capita, Boston (population 645,000) has more good beer bars than Chicago (population 2,800,000). But Chicago, on the other hand, may have more bars, with one on every corner…


Mitchell Sklare February 21, 2012 at 5:34 pm

We have served Chicagolands neighborhoods as alcholic beverage retailers for more than seventy-five years. Regrettably, Pauls information is incaccurate and incorrect.
First there is a strong craft beer market in Illinois and furthermore, a strong dedication to the 3-tier system. Unfortunately, the internet produces experts who are really novices.


admin February 22, 2012 at 9:02 pm

We invite and are thrilled to see discourse here at Your Beer Network. To that end, as editor, I now join in:
Everything asserted by Paul was well documented. He also, at the end of the day, defended Chicago’s status as a craft beer town, citing the growing number of gastropubs, using a couple of reputable and credible links to back up his assertions. Mitchell, in the meantime, wrote nothing to impune what Paul wrote, pointed out no specific inaccuracies or poor assertions, and offered up nothing from his end to establish what there was to take umbrage with… almost looks like he didn’t really read the piece with any care.

As for the unfortunate last sentence from Mr. Sklare, we stand behind Paul’s piece 100%. Again, where there is opinion, it’s obvious. Where there’s fact, there substantiation.
… and just for the hell of it, Paul Ciminero’s professional background:
6 Years at Chicagoland’s top retailer.
3 years as a distrubutor rep for one of the city’s most respected beer and wine wholesalers
20 years as a regional Manager/Supplier with top California wineries and two international importers covering up to 24 states and Eastern Canada.

Harvey Gold


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