"This is the Wisconsin revolution, and it's powered by beer!"
John Nichols, associate editor of the Capital Times and Washington correspondent for The Nation, gave a rousing introduction to Friday's "Save Our Craft Beers" rally, held on the State Street side of the Wisconsin state Capitol at 5:00 p.m. Protesters gathered to unite in opposition against a measure added to the budget by the Joint Finance Committee that effectively bans brewers from purchasing wholesale distributors and, according to the Wisconsin Positive Business Alliance, requires new wholesalers and breweries to secure 25 "separate, independent retail customers before a wholesale license can be granted."
Borrowing from Martin Niemöller, Nichols said the following to a crowd of about 100:
Brothers and sisters. First, they came for our collective bargaining rights, and I did nothing. Then they came for our public utilities; they were gonna barter them off to the Koch brothers and their campaign contributors, and I did nothing. Then they came for SeniorCare and BadgerCare and all the healthcare programs, and I did nothing. And when there was nothing left, finally, they came for our beer. It's time for a revolution!
Nichols said when the German immigrants came to Wisconsin, they brought two things: their revolutionary ideals and their beer recipes. After searching far and wide, they decided the only good place to make beer was Wisconsin.
A crowd member who proclaimed himself a "beer lover" echoed the historical sentiment: "Beer is brain food! It's also democracy jet fuel. When you look at the Constitutional Convention, what were our founding fathers drinking?"
Several employees of Wisconsin craft breweries spoke to the crowd, discussing what the measure meant to them. While the legislation, supported by the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association, the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Grocers Association, the Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Stores Association, the Wisconsin Wine & Spirits Institute and MillerCoors, is touted as the only way to stop Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser products, from snatching up distributors throughout the state, many small brewers feel unfairly targeted.
Whether they feel it's an intentional target or the side effect of a battle between MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, small brewers feel wronged by both the proposal and the way it was introduced.
A Budget Issue?
"Why is this a budget issue? Why is it going through the budget office? Why isn't it being discussed more in depth? Why can't we have more of a say about how this is going to affect us?" asked John, an employee from O'So Brewing Company located in Stevens Point. An Ale Asylum (located in Madison) employee agreed.
"How are we liking the new administration with no special interests, huh?" McCabe asked. "I don't know if you guys have done this Milwaukee drive in the last month; it's a little rough. I was a little late getting here. I could've taken the train, maybe -- oh, I don't think so."
McCabe encouraged the crowd to "drink better beer, not political Kool-Aid."
Several brewers expressed a growing frustration with distribution companies that don't care about individual beers the way small brewers do.
"Over the years, distribution companies have consolidated and consolidated, and they often get bribes from larger brewing companies to push their beers over other brands. And as the distribution companies consolidate, it's harder and harder to get them to sell your beer versus the 100 or so other beers they represent," said Robin, an employee of Vintage Brewing Company, located in Madison. This, Robin explained, is why many smaller brewers start their own distributing companies.
If the beer is good, brewers should be able to sell it to whomever they want to, without dealing with distributors who might not care about it, John from O'So said.
Robin said Vintage would not be affected by the current proposal since it's a brew pub and not a brewery, but said, "Just to show our solidarity with our fellow brewing companies, Vintage did pull off all MillerCoors products yesterday. I heard that about eight representatives from MillerCoors started calling Vintage yesterday, wanting them to put it back on. No. No more."
Robin encouraged other local bars to remove MillerCoors products from their product lists, as well.
Another self-proclaimed "lover of beer" reminded the crowd that the measure can still be removed from the budget. Nichols did the same.
A Winnable Fight
"This is a winnable fight," Nichols said. "A lot of these struggles seem very big and very hard. This one only requires a legislator to sponsor an amendment to take this out of the budget bill. This is a do-able thing, and if we organize, we win. We brought 150,000 people out to this square to fight them in March, and I'm telling you, if they keep this beer thing in, and we keep organizing, we're gonna bring 200,000 out to stop them from taking away our collective bargaining rights, taking away our SeniorCare, taking away our BadgerCare, taking away our control of our public utilities and taking away our beer. That's the last thing we needed."
The level of care that exists with smaller brewers and their beers was a common topic.
McCabe referred to craft brewing as an "artisan style of brewing." He referred to legislators who talk about a three-tier system: brewers, wholesalers and distributors.
"But there's a fourth tier," McCabe said. "Craft brewers care about you guys who drink our beer. We're trying to get from the first tier to the fourth tier, somehow."