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James Ackerman is the wine manager for Georgetown Wine and Spirits, but right now he has a beer problem. He can’t sell singles in sizes less than 70 ounces because the drunks went and ruined it for everyone. They pissed once too often in the wrong people’s yards until D.C. Council members, sympathetic to ANC Commissioners bitching about piss and puke and vagrants on their property, decided last year to ban single beer sales in both Wards 2 and 6. The law officially went into effect on Feb. 9.
The problem for Ackerman, however, was that he already had an agreement with the Georgetown ANC to ban sales of single beers under $4.99, which effectively curbed the market for everything but the pricey microbrews favored by people who actually drink suds for the taste. Frankly, Ackerman didn’t know which rule to follow: Should Georgetown Wine and Spirits obey the new law or continue to operate under its old ANC agreement? He had no idea.
So he called and e-mailed people. He tried his ANC commissioners. He tried Jack Evans, the councilmember who spearheaded the anti-singles charge in Ward 2. He even tried the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. “But nobody’s responded,” Ackerman says. “They don’t seem to care to make it simple for us.”
They may also have no idea. Georgetown ANC Commissioner Tom Birch assumed the voluntary agreement would trump the new law, given that D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles had set a precedent; he ruled in December that bars would have to honor their stricter ANC agreements even though the City Council passed emergency legislation to keep watering holes open late during the inauguration. But Georgetown ANC Executive Director Melanie Gisler figured just the opposite—that the new law would cancel out the old agreement, given the former was more restrictive.
Even Paul Pascal, counsel for the D.C. Association of Beverage Alcohol Wholesalers, didn’t know for certain, even though he was actually involved in the new legislation. He assumed the new law would take precedence, and that licensees would have to go crawling back to their ANCs to beg for an exemption, which Pascal was able to squeeze into last year’s bill.
It’s little wonder then that Georgetown Wine, with no firm answers and no returned calls, took a conservative approach. “In a panic,” Ackerman says, “the owner told the stock clerks here to pull all the single beers off the shelf.”
Liquor and beer/wines stores all across Wards 2 and 6 were doing the same thing last week. Jon Genderson, co-owner of Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, says he’s boxed up his inventory and put it in the basement. The managers at A-1 Wines & Liquors on K Street NW and Dixie Liquor in Georgetown were also pulling single beers (and half-pints, which are also banned in the legislation) off the shelves while they wait to see if they can get an exemption.
To these owners and managers, sales of single beers and half pints represent only a small fraction of their weekly revenue. But they all say that single beers provide an added benefit that can’t easily be measured in dollars and cents. They say drinkers looking for specialty beers—the Chimays, the Duvels, the Dogfish Heads, and the like—don’t just buy suds. They buy wine and liquor and cordials.
“People who come to buy singles end up buying other things as well,” says Prav Saraff, manager at 1 Dupont Circle Wine and Liquor, which has already snared an exemption. “So it’s difficult to tell” how much the ban would affect a store’s bottom line.
The ban has certainly dropped the big one on the bomber market, those 22-ounce single bottles that have become virtually synonymous with craft and specialty beers. When word of the ban reached the serious suds drinkers in D.C., the boards lit up. “I think it is a terrible policy no matter which way you slice it, but unfortunately all too typical of DC politics—a broad, superficial gesture aimed at a deep infrastructural problem,” wrote a member of the Beer Advocate board last month.
“There are a lot of good products out there that will be impacted,” adds Pascal, the wholesalers’ attorney, who says craft beer fans will just take their business elsewhere, maybe to Maryland or Virginia.
Stores that want to avoid the ban have only one avenue to follow: They must file for an exemption. It’s not easy. According to Pascal, the guy who wrote the exemption language, stores must have a letter of support from their ANC; they must not have broken any liquor laws for the past 12 months; they must prove the exemption will not adversely impact the neighborhood; and they must show community involvement. If a store can do all that, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will exempt it. So far only five stores, out of 149 in Wards 2 and 6, have been exempted, according to Cynthia Simms, community resource office with ABRA.
But at least the stores in those two wards have a fighting chance. Those in the other areas with single beer bans—Wards 4, 7, and 8 as well as Mount Pleasant and H Street NE—will just have to lump it. At least until Pascal tries to add an exemption for them, which he plans to do.
Genderson, for one, thinks Schneider’s won’t have much problem getting an exemption. But at least one store, Dixie Liquor, is discovering that its ANC can make matters difficult. Representatives of Dixie went to their ANC meeting on Feb. 2, hoping to secure commissioners’ approval. Instead, they walked away with homework: The commissioners wanted a list of all the single beers and half pints that Dixie sells. The ANC’s hope, says its Executive Director Gisler, is to tailor an approval letter for the ABC Board that spells out exactly what Dixie can sell.
The ANC’s concern, Gisler adds, is that Dixie is located near Francis Scott Key Park, where people like to take their cheap booze and get blitzed. Commissioners “want to curb the small vodka bottles,” Gisler says, “but give them the exemption for the Belgian beers and for the more expensive alcohols.” Gisler acknowledges that the ANC may not have the authority to do so. ABRA’s Simms isn’t sure either. “I can’t say yes or no to that,” Simms says. “I just know those are things we can’t enforce.”
And what about Ackerman? Can he resume business as usual under the existing ANC agreement or must Georgetown Wine and Spirits go through the onerous process of getting an exemption? The good news for Ackerman is that, according to Simms, the ANC agreement takes precedence. The licensee just needs to present a copy of the agreement to the ABC Board.
Which may be a problem. Gisler, who just became the Georgetown ANC’s executive director in September, says the group’s filing system is a mess. They don’t have a copy of the agreement. Neither does Georgetown Wine and Spirits. Ackerman may need the city to give him a copy of his ANC agreement to give back to the city to get an exemption from the city ban on single beer sales.
Whew, who needs a beer?
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