'Bad Beer' Battle Threatens to Pull Apart Boston's Biggest Craft Brew Chain

By Alex E. Weaver
The boundaries of what defines a great beer are subjective. It's why every brewery produces numerous styles. It's why the U.S. can support 5,000 breweries and counting. And why the beer store shelves have more options than your Netflix queue.

For Craft Beer Cellar, the boundaries have become too loose, too permeable. Bad beer is seeping in through the cracks. The six-year-old retailer's reputation has been built on curating the best of the best. Beginning Jan. 1, company ownership is being more proactive about defining the brands of beer allowed on their shelves. And the brands of beer that are not.

Some CBC franchisees are not happy. There are 28 stores across 13 states in the CBC chain, and 11 more planned. And there's a conflict building within this mini-empire. Through a series of phone calls and emails, a handful of franchise owners have told me they plan to take action to protect their collective interests.

One franchisee, who wished to remain anonymous, put it this way:

I entered into the craft beer cellar franchise because I wanted to help people find the beer that they love. The original CBC aura of a family looking for a collaborative approach to spreading our love of craft beer has dissipated into a bullied approach of controlling the stores without collaboration or input from them, which has caused increased expenses and hardships on several levels. ... This actively costs us a higher level of expenses, directly removes revenue, and creates more problems with efficiency and workload.

CBC announced its new policy to the world in a Dec. 5 blog post: “Whether it is a local brewery, or one from further afield, one thing is true: if it doesn’t stand up to the beers that are currently on our shelves, we will not carry it,” wrote Kate Baker, who owns CBC with Suzanne Schalow.

A few days earlier, Schalow and Baker had sent an internal memo to all their stores. In it, they described a "Do Not Sell" list they're resurrecting because, as they described, "We continue to see beer that is not amazing (and in many cases, not fit for consumption) in some of our stores, and we can no longer afford to sacrifice our reputation!"

That part of the memo, which I have obtained a copy of in full, was leaked on Twitter soon after it was sent. Under the bullet describing beer CBC ownership was calling "unfit for consumption" were listed three Massachusetts craft breweries by name: Hopsters in Newton; Bent Water Brewing in Lynn; and Everett's Down The Road Brewery. The memo also included a list of must-sell brands, including larger, name-brand brews like Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, Ballast Point and Firestone Walker.

The post generated a public dialogue across various forums almost immediately. Many supporters have rushed to their defense, siding with their stance that beers they feel demonstrate a “lack of adherence to style, off flavors, and inconsistency in quality" should be kept off valuable shelf space in favor of better options. Others aren't viewing it as kindly: BeerAdvocate's Jason Alstrom called it a "harsh approach."

The void between "amazing" beer and that deemed "unfit for consumption" can be massive, after all. And while any Craft Beer Cellar would love to have a shelf stocked full of beers from Trillium Brewing Company, for example, one thing that brewery prides itself on is not rigidly adhering to styles at all.

More telling is what's happening within the CBC ranks itself: A group of Massachusetts franchise owners feels the mandates being handed down here are not about business, but are more personal. They'll lose money, some tell me, if forced to adhere to the list of brands they must, and cannot, sell. Some fear it could cost them their businesses. Several franchisees have told me that Bent Water or Down The Road are consistently among their top-selling brands.