Good Beer Hunting

I Wanna See You Out That Door — Three Atlanta Beer Bars Stop Pouring Scofflaw

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Brick Store Pub has removed upwards of a dozen breweries from its menu during its 21 years of operation. Any time a Brewers Association-defined craft brewery sells to a macro company like Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors, they’re out. If a brewery’s beers keep getting sent back by discerning customers, even if they’re a small, local operation, they’re gone. But recently, one of the country's most celebrated and longest-running beer bars made an unprecedented decision.

After listening to myriad comments from his staff and customers about Atlanta’s Scofflaw Brewing, comments that included talk of scandalous social media posts as well as more serious internal strife that led to rumors of physical altercations, Brick Store beer manager Dan Fontaine decided he’d had enough. Despite the fact that Scofflaw is one of the fastest-growing breweries in the country, they were out, too.

“We’re in lineup,” he recalls of one day before opening. “Something kicked, and so a new beer from Scofflaw was on, and my staff was just like, ‘Uggggggh! Why?’ I’m tired of answering questions.”

Fontaine had conversations with Brick Store leadership, which led to an early November meeting with Scofflaw’s sales team. He told them the bar was going to take an indefinite break from serving their beer in response to the brewery’s ongoing controversies—controversies which Scofflaw denies, refutes, or downplays, calling some of them “libelous” in nature.

“Everybody at the Brick Store—the staff, the owners, me—aren’t employees of Scofflaw, but we’re supporters of Scofflaw,” Fontaine says. “And so, if weird things happen and the public finds out about them, we have to answer questions. Whether those things happened or not, it’s still a burden.”

Two other local beer bars confirmed to GBH that they’ve also stopped serving Scofflaw based on the brewery’s actions. One declined to comment and the other asked to remain anonymous, both citing fear of industry and/or consumer backlash.

“We will no longer be providing Scofflaw Brewing Company with a venue for their products,” one of the bar owners wrote in an email statement to GBH. “Political views aside, we've heard of and seen enough abusive behavior toward their employees that we feel it's justified to keep them off of our beer menu permanently.

“Also, it isn't fair to force small business owners to make these moral decisions on a (seemingly) monthly basis because of a brewery's flawed internal culture,” they added. “We're done with Scofflaw.”

In an industry where breweries are increasingly stepping in it via insensitive comments, controversial political moves, and otherwise questionable behavior, beer makers are often finding themselves being forced to choose a side (political or otherwise), or even simply to decide who it is they want to serve. The results can trickle down to bars and bottle shops as well. If a brewery stands for something and you serve their beer, do you stand for it, too? Clearly that’s the belief of these Georgia businesses that don't want to be affiliated with what they see as inappropriate behavior.

“I remember just a general feeling of, ‘This is really cool,’ just in the sense that the brand they were pushing was something we hadn’t had here in Atlanta,” Fontaine says of his early impressions of Scofflaw, a brewery that opened in 2016 with aggressive branding and an outspoken attitude. “They didn’t mind posting middle fingers on social media or saying ‘fuck you’ to whomever. It was refreshing and it was fun.”

That changed quickly. As the two-year-old beer maker began leaning into its rebellious side, Fontaine started to feel the weight of responsibility toward his staff. “There are things people have said have happened at the brewery,” he says of persistent word-of-mouth rumors and online postings in Atlanta’s beer community alleging that affiliates of the brewery brandished firearms, punched an employee, and inappropriately contacted a female bartender. While Fontaine says he’s only heard these rumors through bar patrons and Brick Store staff, they’ve also been referenced on the ATLBeer subreddit multiples times in recent months.

“These are things that may have happened or not happened,” Fontaine says. “But that cool, punk rock, badass feeling that was fun and fresh in the beginning just got kind of old.”

Jack Irvine, a PR consultant who responded to GBH's request to Scofflaw for comment, said that he sees it as “desperation” that “struggling competitors lash out at each other and encourage trade websites to fuel this hate and paranoia.” Irvine went on to say that Scofflaw has in the past “let go” of employees based on “job drug abuse, theft and more serious violations.”

“What business doesn’t face these problems?” he wrote to GBH. “Scofflaw doesn’t broadcast these facts to the detriment of those people. Their friends and families do not need to be made aware of their shortcomings which they can work to address.”

As to whether rumors Fontaine and others say may have happened or not happened—that’s the thing. GBH has been quietly following this story since November 2017. After speaking or emailing with a couple dozen members of Atlanta’s beer industry, it’s the same response over and over—variations on the posts linked above. But no one has been willing or able to go on the record and confirm that anything being said at bars or typed on Reddit has occurred. No one has said or will say they actually saw anything happen.

"Beyond working 60-plus hours a week for not enough pay and still being expected to come in and work weekends to boot, what really got me to leave was a lack of a sense of security," one former Scofflaw employee wrote GBH in an email. The comment arrived on condition of anonymity because they’re still a member of the Atlanta brewing community and are being mindful of future employment opportunities. “I have had everything from chairs, tables, even small fermenters thrown in my direction while working there.”

"You never knew what kind of person [Scofflaw president] Matt [Shirah] was gonna be that day,” the former employee’s email continued. “Was he going to throw tables and verbally abuse you, or was he going to try and smoke a joint with you?"

Irvine said the rumors are “ridiculous, false, and irresponsible” and suggests that former employees speaking out against Scofflaw have objectivity that is “obviously suspect and who may not want to reveal what happened to them at their last job. They may even vent their spleen on irresponsible websites.”

Fontaine also cites the recent headlines Scofflaw made in the UK in September, when a press release was sent to thousands of journalists claiming that Scofflaw would give free beer to Donald Trump supporters. Scofflaw has since stated that they did not greenlight the sending of the press release.

He clears his throat and pauses for a moment, trying to get the words just right.

“We talk a lot about doing business with people that we like and we want to be around,” he says. “Nobody at the Brick Store wants to be around people who project themselves as being mean. It was just a gradual wearing down of patience.”

In an interestingly-timed turn of events, Scofflaw recently announced that it would enter the Alabama market in early December. The announcement comes on the heels of the aforementioned, since-aborted attempt to pour its beer in the UK, which itself came about because of the brewery’s December 2017 partnership with BrewDog, at which point Scofflaw’s beer started pouring at the Scottish brewery’s stateside facility in Ohio.

Pouring its beer in Ohio, attempting to pour beer in the UK, losing taps at a few of Atlanta’s beer-centric establishments: these developments paint an interesting picture for the current status of Scofflaw’s product, especially when examined against Shirah’s words in a Sept. 2017 interview with GBH.

“Nah, that’s not gonna happen,” he responded at the time when asked if the brewery would pour its beer outside of Georgia. “You lose control of too many things when you go outside your home.”

—Austin L. Ray