The Badass Beer Advent Calendar: December 18th—Bell’s Christmas Ale
Today we're heading north to Michigan for another Scottish style ale - Bell's Christmas Ale.
Bell's is one of those breweries that gets frequent mentions in the beer geek forums (fora?) because it brews a wide range of very good beers, and in particular a small number which would probably be on every beer geek's Christmas list, most notably Two Hearted Ale, an American IPA, and Hopslam Double IPA. Perhaps Expedition Stout too.
For this reason many of us wish that we could get Bell's beers in Texas, but at the moment their distribution is limited to states mostly in the north and east, and this highlights a growing (sorry, no pun intended) problem with craft beer, namely that it's expanding at a rate of knots. So much so that there have been several stories during the past year or two of breweries which have over-extended themselves in an effort to get their product to as many people as possible, only to find that they can't keep up with demand as more and more Americans are turning away from BudMillerCoors and finding that craft beer is really rather good. For instance, we can no longer get Allagash beers in Texas.
And if you live in Illinois you weren't able to get Bell's beer there for a few years, but that was nothing to do with the company being overstretched. Bells had a dispute with their Chicago distributor and found themselves hogtied by a state law that makes it all but impossible to untie itself from a distributor, even if that distributor sells the distribution contract to another distributor. Founder Larry Bell, after meeting the new distributor and not feeling comfortable with them, decided that the only way around it was to pull all his products and move out of Illinois completely. A big blow to Illinoisan beer lovers.
The three-tier system of beer distribution in America was brought in after the repeal of prohibition, partly to prevent breweries from running their own bars in the same way that British breweries either own or run pubs - the tied house system. This means that almost all beer, cider, wine, liquor etc has to pass through a distributor on its way from the producer to the bar or retailer, and this has made the distributors a powerful lobby. I say "almost all" because some states (Texas is one) allow small breweries to self distribute, and in several states you can go to a winery and buy bottles of wine direct from the people who made it.
This problem of too much demand and not enough production is being addressed by some of the bigger craft breweries, who are expanding production. The Boston Brewing Company (Sam Adams) has breweries in Boston, Cincinnati and Pennsylvania, Sierra Nevada is currently looking at opening a new brewery east of the Mississippi (I hear that N. Carolina is in the frame for that one), and Stone has plans to brew beer in Europe!
Bells managed to sneak back into the Chicago market by brewing new beers under a different name and using a new distributor, and since then they've moved back into Illinois after their original distributor itself pulled out of the state, thus freeing Bells to send shipments there without fear of a lawsuit... probably.