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Potential Changes to Beer Sales in Montgomery County

For years Montgomery County, Maryland, has had a bad reputation regarding the sale of alcohol, but that's starting to change and recent developments should improve the beer scene. 

Recall that last year the county allowed breweries to self-distribute, which Denizens, The Brewer's Art, and others have taken advantage of. In fact, Republic in Takoma has a tap list comprised soley of self-distributed breweries. Yet aside from a few breweries that chose to go this route, everyone else must deal with the county's Department of Liquor Control (DLC). Here's how that currently works:

Bars, restaurants, and stores that sell beer order it from the DLC, which acts as a "fourth tier" in the system that in other jurisdictions has breweries, wholesalers (distributors), and retailers. When retailers want a product, they purchase it from the DLC, who in turn gets it from distributors. Still with me? Good. 

The DLC has two categories of products with regards to beer: stock and special order. The macros we know and love are stock, as are some craft breweries, like Flying Dog, Sierra Nevada, and Dogfish Head. Retailers place orders for these stock products and take delivery within a week on a designated day. The prices of these stock items are comparable to the prices elsewhere in the region. Contrast this with the process in Washington, DC, in which retailers place orders with distributors and often get products the next day. But wait, there's more. 

Many other craft breweries, like Lagunitas and Oskar Blues, are not stock, they are special orders. If a retailer in Montgomery County wants to sell one of these products they need to place a separate order, which can often take longer than a week. In addition, a new beer may take yet another week to be delivered (distributors must register a new brand with the county), and special orders are subject to mark-ups that make them less affordable than if they were bought fresher, several miles away in the District or Virginia. Did I mention that the DLC stores beer in unrefrigerated warehouses? 

Due in no small part to the DLC, breweries that distribute elsewhere in Maryland sometimes skip Montgomery County. Bell's is one such example. 

Last week the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed a resolution to weaken the DLC by allowing retailers to make special orders through distributors instead of Liquor Control. This a move towards the thre tier model and will most likely result in fresher beer at lower prices than under the current system. District 1 Council member Roger Berliner, via a press release (pdf), argues that "our restaurants have been hamstrung and harmed by the operations of the DLC," and Tim Liu, who buys beer for Scion both in DC and Silver Spring, calls this "a huge step, very encouraging." Berliner's explicit goal is to remove the county from the liquor business, noting that this is the first step in "a phased exit." 

This isn't a done deal, however. The next step is to take this Montgomery County Council resoltution to the Montgomery County delegation in the state's General Assembly. Traditionally county delegations ratify the will of local councils, but there are plenty of entrenched interests that would like to see the DLC continue to operate in its current form. Nonetheless, we are optimistic that in the near future Montgomery County residents and shoppers will see more options, fresher options, and cheaper options where they purchase beer. 

 

For more information on alcohol in Montgomery County, see this piece by Paul Josuns. 

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