For years, it's been a more-or-less open scandal at many Massachusetts bars: What kind of beer's on tap has often depended not on what's most popular or most fresh and local, but on who was willing to pay kickbacks to the bar owner - kickbacks often called, say, "marketing fees."
But now, in the first settlement of its kind in state history, one of Massachusetts' top distributors has agreed to make a $2.6 million settlement payment to the state to resolve allegations it engaged in "pay to play" with alcohol-selling establishments for years.
Craft Brewers Guild of Boston, based in Everett, distributes dozens of acclaimed domestic and international brands including local favorites like Allagash, Cisco, Mayflower and Smuttynose, but it hasn't been made public which brands it paid to get preferred treatment in local bar tap lineups.
Supermarkets have long made millions of dollar in what are called "slotting fees" from food and beverage companies who pay them to get guaranteed amounts and positions of shelf space. But for alcohol in Massachusetts, that practice has been illegal for decades.
Craft Brewers Guild, in a statement, said it agreed to make the $2.6 million payment, and the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission approved it.
"CBGB has fully cooperated with authorities during the entire investigation and is committed to following the laws and regulations that are in place. The offer accepted is to ensure that CBGB will be able to maintain its high level of service to our more than 4000 customers, our brewer partners and also allow our employees to market and sell and deliver some of the finest craft beer from throughout Massachusetts and across the country to the craft beer consumer," the distributor said.
The agreement was first reported in The Boston Globe.
The latest news from around the state
ABCC officials said they could not comment on the agreement but are closely investigating several other "pay to play" allegations in the Bay State beer distribution business.
On the other side of the controversy, five Boston bars that are alleged to have taken or demanded kickback payments to serve certain beer brands – Coogan's, Estelle's, Game On, Gather, and Jerry Remy's Sports Bar – are due to appear before the ABCC on May 3, an agency spokesperson said. All five have declined to comment publicly on the allegations.
Beer fans necn spoke to near Fenway Park Wednesday afternoon said they can understand why "pay to play" would be tempting, and make sense, for the businesses involved.
"Obviously, the restaurant is going to pick whomever's going to pay them more," Boston college student Denver Lincoln said.
Jeff Blanchette, who works in the neighborhood, said: "It will definitely make people go to certain bars more often if you like a certain kind of beer" that's also agreed to make a financial arrangement to get on the tap rack.
But Joan Ripple of Hingham said the key question is: "Does the public know that going in?"
The idea of who's on a given establishment's beer list – and who's kept off – being rigged by corporate kickbacks doesn't sit right with her.
"I think it would be nice if people knew and they could be a little more objective about what they get," Ripple said.
And while the dollars and cents make sense to him, Lincoln said he'd worry about the loss of consumer choice and preference ultimately determining what's available in bars.
"I would definitely like a more not-known brand, usually, than just a Miller or a Yuengling," he said.