A merger of unprecedented size and scope is under way between two of the city’s three biggest distributors, Manhattan Beer Distributors and Phoenix Beehive Beverages, and now trade groups representing 100 smaller distributors and 13,000 bodegas are petitioning the Justice Department to intervene before it “threatens small retailers and the beer drinking public.” Are things really that dire, though? Because New Yorkers buy 65 percent of their beer at bodegas, the merger of these titans could definitely change the way we drink. Here’s how.
You might have to pay more for cheaper beer. Mostly, if it’s biggish, inexpensive, and not part of the Union Beer Distributors brew-dom, most six-packs sold around town could now cost whatever the merged vendor wants them to cost. The combined portfolio includes Sam Adams, Corona, Heineken, a lot of things under the MillerCoors banner, and even Brooklyn Brewery. The new company would control “at least 80 percent of the sale of beers,” the Bodega Association of United States complains. “They can charge any price they want.” Small mom-and-pop stores don’t get the same kinds of wholesaler discounts or price breaks as the larger grocery store chains and big box stores.
The merger could create a more difficult market for real craft beers. Plenty of rare overseas stuff comes from the large Massachusetts-based distributor Shelton Brothers, meaning your Freigeist Gose will probably stay safe. But the roster of interesting, workaday microbrews offered exclusively by one of the smaller independent distributors may not be as safe. Bodega owners already pay more than an Associated or Rite Aid because, as individual owners, they don’t have the real estate to store several cases at a time. Indie distributors who have to raise prices to compete with the merged company will take fewer risks, so expect less beer variety all around.
Bodega owners have been lobbying for a bill that would address some of these potential issues before, say, supplies of Central Waters disappear from better-stocked bodega. Manhattan Beer, however, says it’s in the home stretch and hopes “to have the deal consummated within the next few days,” which will leave final word on the merger up to the government.