Monday, August 16, 2010

On New Hampshire's 14% ABV Limit

This morning I noticed a thread on Beer Advocate in which the original poster lamented the 14% alcohol by volume limit on beers sold in the Granite State. I posted my two cents' worth:

I've been following this thread and thought I'd weigh in with some background on this topic. When my partners and I arrived in the Granite State in 1991 to open the Portsmouth Brewery, the alcohol limit for beer sold in the state was 6% abv. In 1995, the year after Smuttynose opened, I met with with our local state sentator and the director of the state's wholesale beverage association to discuss a number of possible changes to the state's beer laws, including raising the 6% limit. The wholesalers' representative thought raising the limit was a political nonstarter, since he was convinced the neo-prohibitionist lobby would crawl out of the woodwork to oppose it. We pressed ahead anyway, forming a group of small brewers and sympathetic legislators. After a good deal of discussion, it was decided that a 12% limit might be sellable, but we weren't even sure about that. (Politics, remember, is the art of the possible.)

As it turns out, organized opposition to the bill never materialized. During testimony, the thing many legislators were most curious about was how many great beers were not available in the state, due to the 6% limit. Commerce, it turns out, won the day. 

Interestingly, in 2007 the wholesalers, who in 1996 were mildly opposed to raising the limit from 6 to 12%, brought forth their own bill proposing raising the limit to 15%, arising from their interest in selling high-octane flavored malt beverages. I didn't want to spend any of my own political capital promoting Mike's super-extra-hard lemonade, but I didn't want to pick an unnecessary fight with the wholesalers (with whom I've built a good, productive relationship), so I sat on my hands and didn't support or oppose this bill. My recollection is that the proposed 15% limit got reeled back to 14%, with the special approval provision added in. 

So that's how we go to where we are at this point. And while I wouldn't discourage anyone from riding their ponies to the statehouse to exercise their rights of citizenship, I'll just point out that with respect to alcohol limits, at 14% most of the battle has been won. Any increases beyond that will be harder and harder to achieve, politically speaking, because the constituency served gets smaller and smaller.

There are lots of amazing beers that are not available in New Hampshire, and the alcohol limit has nothing to do with it. Our is a state whose retail landscape is dominated by three supermarket chains who favor big, nationally advertised brands. This fact influences the way our wholesalers do business: with relatively few retail outlets for truly specialized beers, they tend to shy away from them. If the readers of this forum are really interested in expanding the selection of beers in New Hampshire, the best place to focus their energy is not on the statehouse, but on the major retailers. Next time you are in a Hannaford, Shaw's or Market Basket, take a few minutes and drop a card in their suggestion box asking why many of your favorite beers are not available there. 

A number of people participating on the forum expressed that legislation should be proposed to raise the 14% limit, or do away with it altogether. To them, I say go for it. However, I hope I don't sound too cynical by adding that it is far easier for a single individual  to get in his or her car from time to time and drive to a store in Maine or Massachusetts to purchase beers unavailable in New Hampshire, than it is to become educated about the mechanics of legislation, draft a bill, locate sympathetic legislators, take time to travel to the state house to testify (sometimes multiple times), round up public support, persuade potential opponents to change their positions or at least keep quiet - in short to lobby for a change in the law that will benefit some consumers but have limited consequence in the grand scheme of things. 

That is why, in my opinion, legislation of any kind is generally promoted by those who have a commercial stake in its passage (or defeat), because they are the only ones for whom it is worth devoting the time and resources  required. Sadly, most of the time the voice of the consumer is absent from the discussion. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

On the Portsmouth Brewery's New Menu

Since the Portsmouth Brewery started serving its new menu about a month ago, we've gotten some nice press and a lot of feedback. Though most of it has been positive, a sizable minority has expressed disappointment at the disappearance of certain favorite items, such as our Rhode Island style calamari, steak bomb sandwich, meatloaf, crab rangoon, grilled chicken breast & basil sandwich, salmon sandwich. In responding to these comments, I've found myself touching on the same points, so I thought I'd publish a variation of a letter I sent recently to a regular customer who wrote lamenting the loss of some of her favorite items. Here's my letter. Please let me know what you think.

- Peter

Good morning,

Thanks for following up with me. I've passed your comments along to our chef and his staff, as well as the rest of the management team at the Brewery.

As I'm sure you know, the Portsmouth Brewery is in its twentieth year in business. Over time, we've made numerous changes to our menu, large and small. In fact, our menu, as it's evolved to this point, bears only slight resemblance to the one we opened with back in 1991. There are a variety of reasons why we make these changes:

• An item is not selling well. (It's always tough to be the slowest antelope in the herd!)

• Something has become cost prohibitive, and we would have to charge more for it than would be reasonable. This was basically the fate of our salmon sandwich, which we lost money on every time we served it. We could have kept it at a reasonable price by substituting a cheaper variety of salmon, but we have opted instead to offer salmon as a special when we can offer the best combination of quality and value.

• An item is not logistically feasible to produce. The Brewery does four times the level of business it did in its early years, and about twice as much as when we last expanded our kitchen fourteen years ago. We are constantly faced with the challenge of putting out a greater and greater volume of food from a kitchen that can not be expanded. All this without sacrificing quality. Again, there are easy ways to put out more food - mostly by purchasing pre-prepped boil-in-bag or drop-and-fry items - but we've never gone that route.

• We need to make room for new, interesting items we wish to try out. Due to the previous reason, any new item requires an existing one to be dropped.

• Sometimes, menu items have simply lived out their lifespan and it's time for them to go. When we first opened in 1991, we served fajitas and overstuffed California-style burritos (my sister and I are both from southern California, so this was a natural for us). A few years later when we saw fajitas featured at McDonald's and burrito joints popping up everywhere, we decided it was time to move on.

• But perhaps the most important reason we make periodic changes to our menu is to remain fresh and interesting to our customers, both old and new. Operating a new restaurant is a very different proposition from running one that's two decades old. We are tasked with being both comfortably familiar and fresh and interesting at the same time - it's quite a challenge, but one that we have a lot of fun taking on.

We try not to be too sentimental when it comes to making these decisions. Some of my personal favorites have gone by the wayside over the years (including those burritos, our pizzas and a great fresh avocado & roasted turkey sandwich with homemade red pepper mayo that we used to offer). And when we do make changes, we are always bound to disappoint customers who have grown attached to items that we no longer serve. It's a difficult situation to be in, because in the hospitality business, we here to say yes, not no.

So, now that you've had a look behind our curtain, perhaps you'll take another look at our new menu and regard it differently. We're really happy with it, and the reaction thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. Yes, we've definitely heard from people who've seen a favorite item go away, but I think we still offer one of the most wide-ranging, interesting and creative selections of food around.