State regulators investigating Somerville brewery’s ‘pay-to-play’ allegations
State regulators are investigating charges made by a Somerville brewer, Dann Paquette, who touched off a firestorm among beer enthusiasts when he accused two popular Boston bars of refusing to carry his company’s products because other brewers or distributors had paid to reserve taps there.
In a series of impassioned, late-night Twitter posts this week, the cofounder of Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project said so-called dirty lines — or reserved tap spaces — were the reason his beer is not served at the Lower Depths Tap Room in Kenmore Square and Bukowski Tavern in the Back Bay.
While his allegations are unproven, Paquette and other beer-industry insiders allege “pay-to-play” schemes are widespread at Boston bars and restaurants, and say the practice limits consumer choices and hurts small breweries trying to make a name for themselves.
“A great beer culture deserves more than greedy, shifty bar owners and brewers [trying] to fill their pockets,” Paquette wrote on Twitter.
Gordon Wilcox, whose Wilcox Hospitality Group owns the two bars criticized by Paquette, responded with a blistering open letter, and said they don’t offer Pretty Things beer simply because it is too expensive.
Wilcox did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday, but in his open letter, he angrily denied Paquette’s accusations and said he had never asked him “for a damn thing.”
“Though [the] practice of giving away kegs or other gifts to move product may be common with other companies, I am forced to question your own practices,” Wilcox wrote to Paquette, adding that he “will not serve your inferior product.”
Paquette disputed the accuracy of the prices that Wilcox quoted in the letter.
His comments got the attention of the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
“Now that this incident has been brought to our attention, we are looking into it,” said Chandra Allard, a spokeswoman for Treasurer Steven Grossman, who oversees the ABCC.
She said if the allegations are found to be true, “we will go forward accordingly.”
State regulators have said the few complaints they receive about pay-to-play practices typically involve spats between competing bars and are difficult to substantiate. The ABCC has not taken any enforcement actions based on similar complaints in at least 18 years, a spokesman said.
After Paquette’s tweets, other brewers quickly took to Twitter and industry online forums to cheer Paquette on. Many repeated longstanding complaints that when their salespeople approach bars, they are told the tap lines are “committed” to other brands willing to pay for access, or provide free kegs. The brewers said they have been reluctant to make their gripes public, for fear of angering establishments they count on to market their beer.
“I was just fed up that nobody was speaking out,” Paquette said in an interview.
Pretty Things has offices in Somerville but does not have its own brewery, instead renting time at Buzzards Bay Brewing in Westport. The company is well-regarded for its signature Jack D’or saison brew and small-batch beers based on historic styles.
Having access to draft lines at bars and restaurants is vital, according to brewers, who say aficionados usually buy their favorites at package stores, but are willing to try a pint of something new on tap at their trusted local spot.
“If the brewery is a band, I liken draft beer to the radio,” Paquette said. “You won’t buy the record if you don’t hear the single on the radio and get exposed to it. Draft beer is the least profitable part of our business, but it’s where we get the most exposure.”
Craft beer is booming, with the sales volume jumping 17 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the Brewers Association. But even as more microbreweries and brew pubs open, the overall beer market has slumped slightly, the association found. It is ratcheting up the pressure on brewers to have their products available on tap at a time when beer drinkers have more choices than ever.
Paquette said newcomers to the industry could be discouraged by the hard-nosed practices he has found.
“There’s stuff you don’t see when you’re just home-brewing two days a week, and trying to raise money for a business,” he said. “These new breweries are in for a rude awakening.”