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X-Mas Ale Cabal

Great Lakes' magic elixir is served with a side of frustration

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Great Lakes' Christmas Ale has been dubbed "liquid crack" by those who find its charms especially intoxicating. To the Ohio City brewery, it is liquid gold.

But to some smaller area bars and retailers, the hugely popular seasonal offering can be a liquid headache.

Supply has always been the problem, what with Christmas Ale's exorbitant demand outpacing whatever spills forth from Great Lakes' barrels each year. In fact, for the eight weeks it's available, Christmas Ale surpasses the annual sales of all of the brewery's other beers combined. That's why production is bumped up year after year and why there still never seems to be enough.

It's also why complaints have mounted for years from bars and retailers who order one amount and end up with another — often a fraction of what they wanted to buy.

But the cash train doesn't run on Christmas Ale alone, they say. Superior Beverage, the region's lone distributor of tasty Great Lakes products, likes to think of the seasonal brew as its personal carrot on a stick — the one that keeps bars biting long after the holiday season.

The scenario goes like this: In late summer, a bar owner might get a message from Superior Beverage along the lines of, "I know you guys carry a bunch of Great Lakes in bottles, but they'd like to see some other ones on tap — a commitment to something, especially what with Christmas Ale coming up."

Translation: Want all the Christmas Ale your cash register desires? Then it's time to stock up on Holy Moses. That's the message one East Side bar says it was fed earlier this year. And other bars throughout the area echo the same story line.

It's not illegal, Ohio Division of Liquor Control spokesman Matt Mullins helpfully reminds us. "There's nothing that requires a distributor to sell anything to anyone. It's a private business."

But the tough guy with a keg-and-clipboard routine has irked plenty of bar owners nevertheless.

"It's a shame that the company was built on the backs of Clevelanders and Cleveland pride, and now they hold us hostage," another East Side bar manager says of Superior. "Don't make me buy cigarettes when I just need diapers." He called Great Lakes to complain about the distributor's tactics, but didn't find a sympathetic ear.

"It fucking pisses me off," says a restaurant manager on the south side of town, who regularly gets the shaft on Christmas Ale. "They tell us, 'You don't buy enough of the other stuff.'"

Not surprisingly, those irked by the strong-arm tactics aren't comfortable going on the record by name; after all, even corner bars need whatever dribbles of Christmas Ale they can get.

But some have chosen to nip the Christmas Ale hangover altogether. Declan Synott, who owns Parnell's and the Cedar Lee Pub in Cleveland Heights, stopped ordering all Great Lakes products years ago. "The way I get around it is to not stock it," he says. "No headaches."

And it's no different on the retail side — especially with smaller stores. "You're making $1.50 or $2 on a six pack? It's not worth going to war over," says one owner. "I'll just remember that in January and February, when you're asking about next year's product. You think I'm going to reward that distributor again?"

Superior Beverage did not respond to phone calls from Scene.

Great Lakes, meanwhile, is busy — and proud — as ever.

"In Northeast Ohio, where demand for the festive brew is by far and away the most, our distributors have the daunting task of trying to get as much as possible to their retailers," says spokeswoman Lauren Boveington. "Virtually every account would like to receive more than what they actually receive. It is natural for distributors to give customers who have historically supported our products the first chance to support these items again," she adds.

"We are grateful to all who have made Great Lakes Brewing Co. a part of their festivities in the past, during this year, and for many years to come."

And those who toss back a pint or six might pause in gratitude for the folks who fought so tirelessly to ensure the Christmas Ale would flow your way.

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