Politics and pours: Why beer distributors donate to General Assembly races

RICHMOND, Va. — On a chilly fall night in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond, just ahead of the statewide Virginia election, Ardent Craft Ales’ front patio is full. Couples share drinks, friends gather after work and dogs wander amongst the picnic tables, lit by overhead string lights.

Among those gathered on the front patio is Pat Smith, who enjoys going to local breweries after work with his co-workers.

“Even if I didn’t work in Scott’s Addition, I would still come here,” Smith said.

Enjoying local craft beer inevitably pours funds into politics, further down the distribution line.

The Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association is the seventh-largest political donor in Richmond this year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Since 1996, the VBWA has donated almost $5 million to political candidates and committees in Virginia, with Republicans receiving $1.1 million more than Democrats during that time.

The VBWA represents 24 beer distributors operating in the state. Virginia breweries have to use a distributor once their product leaves the brewery. In Richmond, Brown Distributing Co. sells to retailers local craft beer favorites such as Ardent, Center of the Universe, Hardywood, Kindred Spirit, Steam Bell, and Triple Crossing.

Premium Distributors of Virginia, which acquired Henrico County-based Loveland Distributing last year, lists on its website local and regional brands such as Trapezium Brewing Co., Lickinghole Creek, The Virginia Beer Co. and South Street. The company says they distribute 12 million cases of beer each year to more than 7,300 retailers across 26 counties in Virginia.

VBWA president Philip Boykin said the association does not “discuss political funding outside of our membership.”

Campaign finance data from VPAP show that in 2019, through Oct. 24, the VBWA donated $328,631, with Republican candidates and committees receiving $8,473 more than their Democrat counterparts.

Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, received the most contributions from the VBWA this year, with $20,000. Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, is the next highest recipient with $15,000. Saslaw also leads all active politicians in donations from the VBWA, with $186,591 in total contributions dating back to 1996, according to VPAP.

Cox currently serves as Speaker of the House and Saslaw is the Senate Minority Leader.

Eric Wise is co-owner of Allied Craft Distribution, a Richmond-based distributor specializing in specialty craft beer. In his free time he helps with political campaigns. Wise said that donating large amounts of money to both political parties is typical of trade organizations like the VBWA. Allied Craft Distribution is not a member of the VBWA.

“Right now the laws are very distributor friendly,” Wise said. “I’m guessing it’s up to an organization that lobbies for distributors to keep it that way.”

Eleven distributors did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

The VBWA aims to protect the three-tier system, which governs how craft breweries distribute their product. Under this system, breweries sell their products to distributors, who then sell it to retailers. Virginia has maintained a three-tier system since the 21st Amendment was ratified in 1933, allowing states to set their own laws on alcohol.

The VBWA’s website says it supports the three-tier system because it “helps ensure that every product sold in Virginia pays its fair share of Virginia taxes.” The association also says the system helps foster competition in the industry.

Despite the longevity of the three-tier system, laws have changed related to craft breweries. In 2012, SB 604 allowed breweries with a taproom to sell their product directly “at premises described in the brewery license for on-premises consumption and in closed containers for off-premises consumption.”

“That was a big change that kind of made Hardywood [Park Craft Brewery] what they were, not just a brewery but a tasting room and a destination,” said Wise. “Everyone kind of followed suit after that.”

According to the Brewers Association, Virginia had 236 craft breweries in 2018, which generated an economic impact of over $1.7 billion. The number of craft breweries in the commonwealth has more than tripled since 2014. For customers like Smith, as craft brewing grows in Virginia, the politics become harder to ignore.

“Stone Brewing is in Richmond because then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe was very on the record as saying he was a fan of Stone Brewing,” Smith said. “So I think it’s very naive to say that the politics behind it doesn’t affect it, like it absolutely does.”

As for how politics could affect consumer decisions, some beer drinkers said that quality factored into their decisions as much or more than the beliefs of the business – but not everyone agrees.

“When I go out, not only am I thinking about quality, and all of those things that fit into it, I’m thinking about who am I giving my money to, to continue doing what they’re doing, and for what reasons?” said Karly Hartline from her perch on a Scott’s Addition patio.

Customers went on to say that they value the “escape” of going out, and that they prefer their experience to be independent of politics.

“I would rather not know your politics than know you support my views,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, it’s beer. If I like your beer, I like your beer.”

By Jason Boleman/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets.

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