Friday, April 20, 2012

Nine years later, and absolute power still corrupts Big Red Liquors absolutely.

For unfortunate and disturbing reasons that I'll soon reveal, it is time again to revisit the most renowned grudge match in Indiana craft beer history: NABC vs. Big Red Liquors. It is a long story, indeed; I've never been much for brevity, and longtime readers know it.

This article, originally featured in the FOSSILS homebrewing club's Publicanista! issue #17 in 2003, has not been edited in nine years, with the exception of repairing a broken link (Murray Sperber). I might also note that of the principal players, only I am still on duty at NABC; on Big Red's side, Wade Shanower died in 2011, and John Glumb remains.

Finally, consider this sentence, unchanged after nine years.

Talk to NABC that way, and the Curmudgeon will write about it - now, tomorrow, and forever more, until an apology is forthcoming.

By Monday, I'll be back to tell you why this matters. I may even be back tonight.

----

Now more than ever, absolute power corrupts Big Red Liquors absolutely.

On the evening of Thursday, April 10, 2003, at the conclusion of the first session of the 10th Annual Big Red Beer Festival in the Bloomington, Indiana convention center, our visiting delegation of the New Albanian Brewing Company was ordered to leave the premises, instructed not to return, and provided with a police escort to reinforce the point.

Not since the Reno Gang’s last stand during the post-Civil War era of regional lawlessness has New Albany produced such a desperate band of hardened brigands - or so our overbearing hosts would have you believe.

Perhaps a Roaring Twenties analogy works better: Just call me the John Dillinger of microbrewing (it would be presumptuous to identify with the likes of “Pretty Boy Floyd.”) Or, more recently, we evoke nostalgic shades of Chicago, the Democratic National Convention, 1968: “The whole world is watching.”

Our walking papers were verbally delivered to us by two members of the Big Red Liquors management team, John Glumb and Wade Shanower, a pair of wholly corporate, well-fed and utterly plain men who differed from the other polo shirts in attendance by the shared habit of spluttering ominously, brilliant white teeth clinched, blue neck veins bulging in a most unhealthy way and misshapen, contorted faces as red as their Big Red Liquors knits.

Setting aside the acrimonious tone of voice by which the charges against us were delivered by these ill-tempered voices of doom and finger-wagging remonstrance, we were able to discern three general themes: We had violated the “one-ounce pour” taboo, incited the crowd to begin chanting scurrilous anti-Miller Lite slogans, and scandalously refused to “respect” the festival and its organizers.

Three strikes, and we were out - gone, removed, our presence no longer tainting the general vicinity, presumably relegated to the woodshed to reflect on our misdeeds.

In truth, we were quite happy to go.

There are dozens of places far closer to home where we might suffer extreme verbal abuse without donating our beer and precious time for the privilege, but being annoyingly principled on those occasions when we’re pushed into it against our collective wills, we feel rather strongly that Big Red’s allegations were the epic stuff of nonsense, and that the mean-spirited tone in which they were delivered was quite unnecessary in an assembly of adults.

Moreover, we assert that our demeanor during the festival’s opening night was very much in keeping with the fundamental nature of the festival as Big Red Liquors has operated it over the past decade, and that this in turn mirrors the reasons why the company has become successful - or, in Big Red’s own words (prominently displayed on the company’s web site): “We’ve got your party.”

Indeed.

Big Red Surveys Its Market - and It Is Good.

To understand the events of April 10, 2003, one must first consider the context of the local business climate in which Big Red Liquors has operated during its 30-year history.

As all Hoosiers know (except, of course, the ones loyal to Purdue University), Bloomington is the consummate Midwestern college town, home of the main campus of Indiana University, without which the Monroe County seat would be indistinguishable from a dozen other cities of similar size in the state that don’t have a student population of some 40,000.

Detailed statistics aren’t at all required to gauge the impact of these students on the community, both economically and in sociological terms.

Strikingly, and appropriately, Bloomington is an oasis of cultural diversity in a corn-fed, lily-white desert, with people from all across the globe attending IU and working for the university. Looking for a Tibetan monastery? Go to Bloomington. Eritrean, Moroccan and Afghani cuisine? Same place. Exotic newspapers with no NASCAR point standings? You get the picture.

Existing alongside this esoteric world tableau are the nativist Indiana rites, ranging from the rocker John Mellencamp’s place of residence to fundamentalist Christian churches to the truest religion of the state, basketball, exemplified by an IU roundball program that ranks as one of the most fabled in America, a veritable monolith supported vociferously by legions of red-clad undergraduates and their brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents who came before them to Bloomington for the quintessential American educational experience.

This begs the question: Exactly what is the quintessential American university-level educational experience? And, what does all this have to do with that other hallowed institution, Big Red Liquors, which for many IU undergraduates has been far better known than the location and contents of their classrooms?

University Undergraduates: Necessary (and Profitable) Evil?

All told, the history of university students as hard-partying Bohemians predates the United States, and probably can be traced back to Charles University in Bohemia (Prague, to be exact), or perhaps to German bastions of higher learning like Heidelberg (remember to visit the student prison) or England’s Oxford and Cambridge.

But how did it come to be that going away to college in America meant diving headfirst into a relentless, bottomless kegger (not to mention a willing coed), wearing togas and Hawaiian shirts, sleeping only occasionally, grudgingly cracking open a book to cram mere moments before the test, and in general, behaving just like the legendary celluloid fraternity in “National Lampoon’s Animal House”?

According to Professor Murray Sperber, who in an ironic twist teaches at IU in Bloomington, such a situation developed at the behest of America’s colleges and universities themselves.

With the legendary Hollywood movie itself as an ex post facto demonstrative tool, “Big Time U’s” knowingly have sought to entice students with the recreational lures of top-level party culture (on- or off-campus) and top-flight NCAA athletic programs.

Dr. Sperber identifies this phenomenon as the “Beer and Circus,” which naturally echoes the “bread and circus” of ancient Rome. He believes that it is a ploy designed to distract students from the failure of their chosen institutions to provide a quality undergraduate education in return for the vast sums of money required of otherwise marginally qualified students.

Not coincidentally, Bloomington plays host to a major university that is a perennial Big Ten basketball contender, with a mega-party tradition incorporating events like the Little 500 bicycle race … and the city also is the home turf of Big Red Liquors, stagers of the annual beer festival, with eleven convenient locations to serve the student body.

For Dr. Sperber, a persistent and under-appreciated critic of the role of major college sports in America, a vicious, unholy cycle undermines the quality of higher education. The cycle begins when major universities covet lucrative governmental and corporate funding that derives from success at high-level academic research.

To achieve this success, these universities must employ high-level academicians to do research, but this effectively precludes their involvement in teaching undergraduates, whose presence increasingly demands intensive, remedial resources that are not applicable to the dictates of high-level research programs.

However, the tuition money demanded of undergraduates remains essential to the overall financial structure of the institution, as it can be raised seemingly at will and eagerly paid by those in need of the university diploma that is now absolutely necessary to pursue any significant (read: higher paying) career.

Consequently, undergraduates are shunted into mass lecture halls holding hundreds of students for classes commonly taught by graduate assistants or part-time professors. In short, the undergraduate mob is poorly served in terms of meaningful educational quality, which in more merit-based educational systems the world over might well result in protests and demonstrations on the part of the students.

Beer and Circus.

Not so in America, says Dr. Sperber, because undergraduates here are amply rewarded with distractions, or circuses, most noticeably in the form of big-time athletics, most often football and basketball. Supposedly, athletic success in gridiron combat or during the springtime ritual of March Madness attracts more undergraduate students (and their money) to the university, which is more necessary than ever owing to the inconvenient fact that few athletic programs turn a profit for their schools. No matter; everyone rallies around a winning team, and World Civilization 101 is mercifully forgotten.

The second pivotal distraction, which Dr. Sperber alleges has been implicitly condoned if not explicitly promoted by America’s universities, is beer: Beer by the case, the pitcher, the keg; beer, beer, wonderful beer.

Dr. Sperber points again to the importance of the film “Animal House” in helping to define the university experience as non-stop Bacchanalia symbolized by the totemic, drunken, decidedly non-academic John Belushi strutting his stuff while wearing a sweatshirt reading simply “College.”

What could be more collegiate than clocking out on Thursday, drinking through the weekend, attending the big game against Tech, partying far into Sunday and possibly even Monday, and barely considering one’s ostensible reason for being on campus in the first place until some time Tuesday - at which point the cycle is almost ready to begin anew?

"We’ve Got Your Party,” Redux.

To apply Dr. Sperber’s compelling theory of “Beer and Circus” to his own places of employment and residence - Indiana University and Bloomington - is to begin to understand the convergence between the current socio-political climate in the city and on the campus, and by extension, the inexplicable rage directed at the New Albanian Brewing Company by the two functionaries of Big Red Liquors.

The “Circus”: Much of Dr. Sperber’s time at Indiana University coincided with that of Bob Knight, the school’s famously talented, prodigiously intemperate and unfailingly controversial basketball coach, who presided for decades over a successful program that distracted not only Indiana University’s undergraduates, but also many of the State of Indiana’s less discriminating adults.

The “Beer”: Both Dr. Sperber and Coach Knight resided and worked in Bloomington during the same decades as Mark McAlister, who founded Big Red Liquors in 1973 and built the company into Southern Indiana’s largest retailer of alcoholic beverages. While Big Red Liquors isn’t the only package store operating in Bloomington, it has bought out many other local independent operators, and it holds a market share sufficiently large to approach that of a monopoly.

There is no way of knowing how much of Big Red’s business comes from the student population on Indiana University, although I hasten to emphasize not from directly selling to minors. There is nothing to indicate that Big Red Liquors has been anything other than scrupulous with respect to under-aged sales, nor could it have been otherwise for the company to continue to amass package sales licenses.

At the same time, it is highly unlikely that Big Red Liquors could ever have grown so large without playing a crucial role in supplying “Beer” for the “Circus” on and near the Indiana University campus. In serving this market, either directly or indirectly, Big Red has always had willing assistance from those brewers standing to gain the most from college town monopoly sellers.

As Dr. Sperber reveals in his book, the 1970’s and 1980’s were halcyon days for beer at the ol’ alma mater. America’s megabrewers regularly dispatched special sales representatives to preside over the dispensing of cheap beer to university undergraduates - beer purchased by fraternities and sororities as well as individuals from local retail “partners in profit” like Big Red Liquors.

When these decades of complicity in America’s campus party scene led to widespread criticism (described below), and university socio-political climates became too hot for comfort, the megabrewers maintained influence through their ubiquitous advertising budgets, underwriting the billion-dollar televised college sports schedule and maintaining the intimate ties between the circus and its alcoholic fuel.

It’s simply no coincidence that local retailers in university towns, like Big Red Liquors in Bloomington, seized the heaven-sent opportunity to grow wealthy on the broad shoulders of the megabrewers whose products have been advertised nationally and marketed with feverish intensely to students, especially those drinking to the tribal cadence of campus sporting events.

Welcome to the 2003 Big Red Beer Festival …

One can see all of these seemingly disparate threads come together in the Big Red Liquors Beer Festival, the ostensible aim of which is laudable and legitimate: To raise money for the Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs of Bloomington.

However, during its ten-year run, the beer festival has served other less savory purposes alongside that of supporting local charity. One is to gather Big Red Liquors’ suppliers - wholesalers and brewers of megabrews, microbrews and imports - under one tent for a sycophantic show of love for Big Red Liquors.

For a vendor to miss out on this “spontaneous” demonstration of affection, akin to the Communist party congresses of old where the captive nations gathered to express appreciation to Moscow for its benevolence, would be to risk an unfortunate accident, such as loss of shelf space or a refusal by Big Red to buy at previously acceptable levels and margins.

Obviously, to relentlessly pressure suppliers into ensuring healthy profit margins is to enable the retailer to sell vast quantities of inexpensive beer to its target market, which in a university town is not primarily composed of factory workers, suburban housewives or wine snobs.

Many of the same brewers and wholesalers privately express exasperation and annoyance with Big Red Liquors as a business partner, with one word, “arrogant,” being used regularly along with other, less polite turns of phrase.

Unsurprisingly, given the prerequisites of business intercourse, public attribution of these sentiments is rare, but most of us accept the veracity of the old saying in the context of Big Red’s monopoly capitalism: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A final purpose for the Big Red Liquors Beer Festival is to provide six hours (over two nights) of drunken revelry for an audience composed primarily of students. For many years I have been told by brewers and wholesalers that the Big Red Liquors Beer Festival is the very last place you’d go to attempt an honest and thoughtful sampling of the world’s great beers.

Big Red’s palpable contempt for those in attendance at its annual beer festival is legendary and much discussed. Identification is checked, money is harvested and the ensuing throngs are handled with all the finesse of a Third World stockyard. Consider this testimonial, as published after this year’s festival on www.indianabeer.com:

“They (Big Red) sent people directly from a glass of beer into the parking lot. They didn't recognize the value of letting people have a few minutes to collect themselves before leaving. They relied on police presence to close the place down as fast as possible so they could get home and watch the Daily Show. They actually threatened their patrons while the folks were quietly moving out as rapidly as possible.

“Given this attitude by the organizers and the stereotypical bullying attitude that their paid uniformed force showed, it will be very possible for people to be arrested or assaulted Friday night by employees of Big Red - it could have happened Thursday night. At the very least, expect to be shoved out unceremoniously into the night to fend for yourself. Not a good idea on their part, and not very flattering of the 47 vendors.”

Hey, New Albanian, Don’t Let the Door Hit You.

Given past experiences, why would the 2003 edition of Bloomington’s (in)-famous Big Red Liquors Beer Festival be any different from the ones before it?

First, a long-term socio-political trend has come to fruition, one that first emerged in the 1980’s when M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) came to prominence.

In Indiana, as in many other states, coalitions of religious fanatics, neo-prohibitionists, health fascists and generic do-gooders (among them the Governor’s Commission for a Drug-Free Indiana and the Indiana Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, to name two) have banded together to challenge the status quo of campus alcohol consumption. These efforts have been dutifully buttressed by media news coverage of topics like binge drinking, fraternity initiation abuses, and underage drinking.

Consequently, throughout the decade of the 1990’s, university administrations began scurrying from the unholy glare of scrutiny, responding with various edicts, pieties and policies designed to curb the availability and use of alcoholic beverages - in effect, seeking to reform if not abolish outright the “Beer” pillar of “Beer and Circus.”

More recently, there arose a second factor specific to Indiana University itself: The announcement by the “Princeton Review” in August, 2002, that based on the results of the publication’s annual survey of American college students, IU was the nation’s top-ranking party school.

That this finding was published only a few months after the school’s basketball team unexpectedly advanced to the final game of the NCAA tournament must have been music to the ears of Dr. Sperber, but it was purely fingernails on the blackboards of IU’s administrators, who had all but declared victory over such unsightly blemishes.

With spotlights again shining in its eyes, the administration of IU responded with outrage, denial and aggression. During the fall semester of 2002, three times as many IU students were arrested by campus police on alcohol charges as during the same time period a year earlier. Fraternity houses were raided, and students provoked into indignation by the extent of the oppression.

It isn’t known whether Indiana University has decreased its undergraduate tuition fees or lessened its class sizes, but quite obviously a full-court press against the malt beverage component of Dr. Sperber’s “Beer and Circus” is taking place in Bloomington.

It Is Said that Only Cockroaches Will Survive a Nuclear Conflagration.

And, through it all, who remains the biggest retailer of beer in Bloomington, eager as ever to sell cases and kegs to all comers with two forms of I.D.?

That’d be Big Red Liquors, who in April of 2003 staged its tenth annual beer festival but the first since the post-“Princeton Review” glare of searchlights began to re-examine Dr. Sperber’s perennially unsettling “Beer and Circus” equation.

Into this festival strolled the New Albanian Brewing Company’s four representatives, largely unaware that were about to become sacrificial lambs for a Big Red Liquors management team eager to prove that it was in control of the situation, but unwilling to approach the “offenders” like adults, preferring instead to rant, rave and posture not unlike that ridiculous high school principal who used to scream at you to grow up and be mature - come to think about it, not unlike Animal House’s own self-serving Dean Wormer.

It isn’t hard to feel at least some empathy for a business that has achieved its present level of success by exploiting a captive marketplace, “Beer and Circus,” that is coming under increasing attack from elements of society who if give free rein would re-institute Prohibition and put Big Red Liquors completely out of business. I feel for Big Red in this broadest of senses.

There is far less empathy to be felt for Big Red Liquors insofar as it has sought (and largely succeeded) to monopolize the Bloomington retail market and to exploit beer wholesalers and brewers accordingly, particularly those smaller players who cannot afford to play the game in the manner of Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors.

There is no empathy whatsoever for those staffers of Big Red Liquors whose human relations skills apparently were gleaned from a close study of the deposed and detested totalitarian regimes of Pol Pot and Nicolae Ceausescu, irrespective of the stress and strain accompanying a beer festival in troubled times.

Did Big Red’s John Glumb warn NABC not to fill glasses beyond the one-ounce limit?

Yes, but twice, not a preposterous six times as he now claims.

Were we the only ones warned?

No.

Were we the only ones ejected for the offense?

Yes.

Did the people crowded in front of the NABC table begin chanting “F**k Miller Lite?”

Yes, and we certainly encouraged this truly spontaneous statement of principle, confident that wars are fought to protect freedom of expression, and that truth is never libelous.

Do Glumb and his boss, Wade Shanower, believe in these same tenets?

Apparently not, but you’ll have to ask them, because we tried and were promptly silenced - which in and of itself eloquently provides their answer.

Did we disrespect Big Red Liquors and the “meaning” of its annual beer festival?

As I’ve tried to make clear, this depends on which of the festival’s several meanings is intended. NABC has no qualms with the company’s or the festival’s charitable aims. As for licking the boots and certain anatomical regions of monopoly capitalists? There’s nothing about such a servile exercise that’s worthy of respect, so in this sense we provided none.

However, respect runs both ways.

Did Big Red’s John Glumb and Wade Shanower shower us with rudeness, condescension, dismissiveness and contempt?

Yes. Their attitude is simply impossible to fathom. Talk to your customers that way, and you have no customers. Talk to your suppliers that way, and they grin and bear it because they have to so as to secure a piece of the monopolistic pie.
Talk to NABC that way, and the Curmudgeon will write about it - now, tomorrow, and forever more, until an apology is forthcoming.

Given Big Red’s breathtaking arrogance (that word again!), we can expect the apology to accompany word that the last American college student has gone on the wagon, the NCAA has been dismantled, and Anheuser-Busch has conceded use of the name Budweiser to the Czech brewer from whom A-B stole it.

I’m not holding my breath.

As for the outcome of the evening and our ejection from the 2003 Big Red Beer Festival, we take pride, because the buffoonish venality of Big Red Liquors brought welcomed notoriety to the New Albanian Brewing Company, which dominated the proceedings during its sole evening of participation and received numerous compliments from the friendly crowd.

The city of Bloomington remains cosmopolitan and lively, a bastion of cool in the midst of Indiana’s numbing conformity and conservatism.

But Bloomington’s premier package liquor and beer monopoly, and at least two of its less-than-distinguished standard-bearers, wears far fewer clothes than commonly imagined.

Regime change now!

1 comment:

Bart Inlow said...

I just came upon this story (08-22-14) while trying to find out who owns big red liquors. It makes sense now why none of the great beers of this brewery are offered at my big red. To make matters worse, there are no independent liquor stores left in Bloomington In. The beer distributor in the area (best Beers) is also a monopoly, having bought the distributor in terra houte In. Someone should put a hotel on Baltic Ave. and roll the dice.