Sep 242013
 

Which beers can you find in Montgomery County Maryland?  How do you know? Why do we care? Why is finding beer (if you care about which beer) so hard?

I’ve lived in Maryland for thirteen years this time around, but I’ve been resident in so many states I have trouble keeping their liquor laws straight.  It’s about time I got a grip on my own adopted home turf.  Montgomery County is comparatively a very large area, and if you don’t know that the County is the liquor distributor, you can beat your head against a wall trying to track down your favorite beer.  If one store tells you they can’t get it, no one in the County can. Finding beer can become a quest.

Finding beer: we're just NW of DC

See DC lower center? See the block right above it? That’s us.

Maryland is a very small state – ok, we have smaller in the U.S., granted – it’s about 500 square miles and a million people.  See the map? Find DC. See the big blue more-or-less tilted rectangle right above it? That’s Montgomery County.  The median income is over $90,000 (remember this is the East Coast near one of the major cities, so things are ex$$pensive here).  More than 50% of the population have a bachelor’s degree or higher.  We’re well informed, we’ve traveled, but we can only find certain beers here, as regulated by the County.  And the County has other factors to consider besides just market forces.  The County needs revenue.  It’s illegal in Maryland to have beer mailed (certain wines are allowed) so we mostly make do with what’s here.

“It’s the List!” one friend exclaimed. “The County has a List!”  So there’s a list to blame?  Sounds like nouveau backlist. Wow that’d be grim.  Or maybe patronage: like exclusive clubs; if you’re not on the list you can’t get in.   You just know money’s at the bottom of this.   I decided to look into it.

Help Finding Beer

Enter Gus Montes de Oca, Chief of Operations at the Montgomery County Dept. of Liquor Control (DLC).  He was very generous with his time, but after two or three email exhanges while I tried to make sense of the three-tier distribution system filtered through a municipality (brewery is sometimes the wholesaler, distributor who is the County, retailer), he offered to call me  and make it all plain.  Good thing he did.  The three-tier system can be confusing at the best of times, since each and every region in the U.S. has a different configuration of players and availability.  I’d never seen what happens when you mix a County government in.

Montgomery County, Maryland acts as its own distributor, with the County as its sales territory.  The DLC can buy from anyone who has a dealer’s permit in the state of Maryland.  Gus claims those license aren’t too expensive.  He says there are 24-25 licensed distributors in the state of Maryland, each with their own territory.  There are three large liquor and wine distributors who may also carry beer, but it sounds like most of our regional distributors choose either liquor and wine, or beer.

The County buys directly from all breweries and local wholesalers, and sometimes from other distributors.  Thanks to this year’s Craft Brewery Bill, retailers may buy directly from craft brewers that have the proper license. As an example, with this legal change,  the DLC can now buy DCBrau directly out of its brewery in the District of Columbia right next door (and they do!).

Here in Montgomery County, only the County itself can sell liquor.  They run 25 stores that handle the hard stuff, scattered around 491 square miles of County.  They let commercial beer stores buy licenses to sell beer and wine.  Some grocery stores were grandfathered in before all this became law, so sometimes you’ll see beer and wine in a grocery store, but not all that often – unlike our neighbor to the south, the state of Virginia, where the beer and wine sections at the supermarket can be right impressive.

Now, if you request a special order at your favorite brew shop, that gets passed up the chain to a couple of guys at the County.  They will hunt around and see what it would cost to get it for you, if they can get it at all.  They buy about 2,200 cases a month of special orders just from one specific distributor. The County can’t sell beer to you directly, it has to go through a licensed store, so you will have to wait until the word (or the beer) is delivered to your brewshop.  However, my new friend Gus has Special Order marked by some of the beers on his magical spreadsheet of beers available in the County of Montgomery.  What you see is what they can get.

I’m adding DLC beerwork  spreadsheet here – Montgomery County’s beerworks list as it stands right now.  There, finding beer in Montgomery County just got a little easier. Note St means it’s stocked in their warehouse, and SB is a special order beer that is not stocked in their warehouse.  As Gus pointed out, with so many craft breweries opening and so many new beers coming out every month, the list can change depending on demand.  But as with all things retail, demand determines supply.  If it’s not cost-effective, as in there aren’t enough people ordering it, the County doesn’t stock it.  That seems reasonable right up to the point where I can’t get Traquair House Ale  or Geary’s Hampshire Ale in my County, can’t have it mailed to me, and have to go on a cross-country search to find it.  I’m a finicky beer drinker. I can actually write the list of the beers I genuinely like and want in my house. So there’s some searching involved.

Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control does have a fairly informative website.  Gus says I can include his email, but please don’t abuse the guy.  He’s helpful and doing the best he can for us in the structure he’s got:  gus.montes@montgomerycountymd.gov .

Don’t be mad – there were liquor wholesalers five thousand years ago, feeding vast quantities of wine to Mesopotamia, with licenses and middlemen and retail outlets and getting taxed for their trouble.  Nowadays at least we have email and can ask direct questions.

  4 Responses to “Finding beer in Montgomery County, MD: the County as distributor”

  1. Why not mention the fact that beer is more expensive in Montgomery County as a direct result of the county taking its cut? The prices for some pretty common craft beers are outrageous compared to prices in Howard or Frederick county. The people of MogoCo are getting taxed twice on every six pack they buy. (On top of a poorer selection)

    • Well, someone’s going to take a cut; in this case it’s the County instead of a specific distributor, but there’s always someone at that level getting some. There’s no question I get frustrated with the selection, but I probably would no matter where I lived; I’m fortunate to have resources introducing me to wonderful beers from all over the place, and it’s asking a lot of any distributor to keep me happily supplied. I strongly dislike that I can’t have beer shipped to me in Maryland, so I can’t mail-order beer otherwise unavailable here. That’s protectionism at its most prohibitive, I think, particularly in this electronic age where it’s easy to figure out exactly where to get what I want.

  2. Thank you for this well written piece about our crazy county, and for including the list of stock v special order beers. Of course, it brings to mind the question what makes a beer stock v special order. You’re new friend Gus will tell you it’s supply/demand based. However, breweries and distributors will tell you it seems to be based on the capricious whims of Gus himself. Some have had a relatively easy time placing their products, and others wait for months just to get a meeting. I have long contended that all sides are to blame for our limited supply and often extravagent pricing. The next step is to really investigate which distributors and/or breweries are better represented on the stock list and why. How to expand the stock list, to allow for easier access and better pricing for retailers and ultimately the customers.

    • The Department of Liquor Control has a shiny new warehouse, but I’m not sure how much more room it has, or how much they’d need to significantly broaden their stock list. For pricing, I’d want to compare relative costs between Montgomery, PG and Howard Counties and see if our markup is as far out of line as it feels, compared to how much more expensive Montgomery tends to be relative to our neighbors. Hmmmm….

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