Why You Can't Buy the Beers You Want in Arizona

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You can't get Pliny the Elder in Phoenix. Let's just begin with that truism, since it'll be far easier to explain why not if you aren't spending this whole article wondering about the local availability of the country's most sought-after beer. Ditto The Alchemist and their double IPA, Heady Topper. And anything from Hill Farmstead, Jester King, Kuhnhenn, Surly, Three Floyds or Cigar City. You won't find any beers from any of these breweries for sale in Arizona. Not legally, anyway.

The reason has to do with the Three-Tier System, part of the law governing the sale and distribution of alcohol in the U.S. The regulation was put in place in 1933 as a portion of the 21st Amendment -- the one that repealed Prohibition.

See also: Chow Bella's 10 Best Beers of 2014

In the years before Prohibition, the beer industry was booming. The number of breweries in operation in our country was higher than at any time in history (in fact, only this past year did we return to our pre-Prohibition level of brewers.) The early 1900s saw the growth of the "tied house" -- a bar owned, in part or whole, by a brewery. In the tied house relationship, brewers would furnish bars with equipment and supplies and offer rebates or discounts on beer; in exchange, the bar was expected to push the brewery's product, or even carry it exclusively. The cutthroat competition for control of taverns by breweries led, at least in part, to the establishment of Prohibition in 1919.

When the law was repealed 14 years later, the authors of the 21st Amendment included a regulatory scheme known as the Three-Tier System, which separated brewers from retailers by placing a third party -- distributors -- between them. According to the law, brewers wishing to see their product in a bar, restaurant or liquor store would first have to sell it to a distributor, who could then sell it to retailers. This separation would limit tied-house abuses and encourage moderate alcohol consumption -- while generating additional tax revenue for the government, of course.

What this means for the modern drinker: You can't get every beer in every state. Many different distribution companies operate within different territories, and to send their beer to a new state, a brewery must first sign a long-term contract with a distributor, which can be a barrier for a brewer's entry into some markets. Also, many breweries simply don't make enough product to send countrywide. Your favorite small, local brewery from another state? Probably not available here.

Here's a list of the most-requested breweries that don't currently distribute to Arizona:

  • 21st Amendment Brewery
  • Allagash Brewing Co.
  • Alpine Beer Co.
  • Brooklyn Brewery
  • Cascade Brewing
  • Cigar City Brewing.
  • Flying Dog Brewery
  • Funky Buddha Brewery
  • Great Lakes Brewing Co.
  • Hair of the Dog Brewing Co.
  • Harpoon Brewery
  • Hill Farmstead Brewery
  • Jester King Brewery
  • Kern River Brewing Co.
  • Kuhnhenn Brewing Co.
  • La Cumbre Brewing Co.
  • Lawson's Finest Liquids
  • New Glarus Brewing Co.
  • Revolution Brewing Co.
  • Russian River Brewing Co.
  • Sixpoint Brewery
  • Surly Brewing Co.
  • SweetWater Brewing Co.
  • Three Floyds Brewing Co.
  • Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.
  • Westbrook Brewing Co.
  • Yuengling Brewery

Now, that's not to say some of these breweries will never be available in our fair state. Many new beers entered the Arizona market in 2014, and more are sure to come this year. But for now, any beer from the breweries above will have to be procured through, shall we say, extra-legal means. That said, if you do happen to get your hands on a beer that's not distributed here, don't bring it into a bar. Unless your favorite watering hole has a BYO license (which it almost certainly doesn't), the liquor board can fine the owners up to $1,500 for each product on premise not purchased through one of the state's distributors.

The Three-Tier System and the limits it puts on your ability to obtain craft beer from across the country can be an annoyance, surely, but as the number of breweries available within our state continues to expand, it's becoming less of a problem. The aforementioned Pliny the Elder is currently distributed to just four states: California, Oregon, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. Enjoy trying it when you travel, but don't worry about it too much when you're home -- there are many examples of the style you can get here that taste much better.

Zach Fowle is a BJCP-recognized beer judge and a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.

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