Roger Downey

Just after New Year's, I visited the beer case at my neighborhood minimart and discovered that one of my favorite brews had gone up 50 cents in price for a six-pack. Half a dollar isn't much, but it was enough to urge my eye to either side of my favorite brew, where I discovered that these beers, too, had experienced a 50-cent hike. In fact, virtually all the beers in the casethe so-called premium beers (I shop at a very classy minimart)had gone up the same amount. I checked with the beer buyer. The news was worse than I thought. The prevalent price of the premium Northwest brews is now up a dollar since last year, to $8.50 per six-pack. The full impact of the price hike was masked by a pretty-much-across-the-board "post-off" (Liquor Board jargon for "discount") of 50 cents, presumably to let us get used to the jolt before slipping us another. I recently wrote about how Costco is threatening to sue the Liquor Board for making wholesalers offer products at the same price to all customers. It made me wonder: When every beer in an entire category jumps exactly the same amount in price at exactly the same time, might there be a little freelance price-fixing going on there, too? I called the state attorney general's antitrust office. Nobody was talking for the record, and, even off the record, the word was discouraging. "It doesn't matter how suspicious it looks," I was told. "You have to prove there was collusion in setting the price." Fair enough, but I wasn't ready to give up that easily. I called a retailer with deep experience in the beer trade. "You're barking up the wrong tree," I was told. "It isn't the people who make the beer who did this. About three and a half distributors account for 99 percent of the beer sold in this state. When the distributors decide the price should go up, you think they're going to raise it on just one or two brands in a category? The brewers don't have to fix prices; the distributors do it for them." It made sense, enough sense that I called one of those distributors and put it to them straight: How come all your beers went up the same amount at the same time? The answer, while not exactly direct, was somewhat mollifying. "Beer prices in this state haven't gone up in a long, long time. But costs have been going up gradually all along. When that happens, the beer makers get squeezed, because nobody wants to raise their price for fear of losing business to the competition. "But last year prices started going up more sharply. Many of our brewers, especially craft brewers, use a lot of high-quality imported ingredients, and the falling dollar makes those ingredients more expensive. And the state tax on beer has gone up, too. Not much, but some. I think that everybody in the business looked at their bottom lines and decided the time had come. No conspiracy, just common sense." Maybe. I can't prove otherwise. Probably nobody could. And it's only 50 cents a six-pack. Or a dollar. And there are cheaper beers if I'm so stingy. But I don't have to like it. But . . . like the Minions say in Ming the Rude: "We're mad as hell . . . and we're going to take it just a little while longer!!!"

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