I have no idea whether this is a real thing or not. Accusations are not facts. Much as Dann Paquette is respected by beer geeks, this is nothing but rumor-mongering. Based on the reactions, I have a strong suspicion it is happening--but I wish Dann had some actual evidence to offer. The issue is a rich one, and if you want to get a sampling of opinion the issue has sparked, look here.
What’s “pay to play”? It’s when breweries bribe bars under the table to stock their beers and freeze out competition and is, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations, an illegal practice. [Pretty Things' Dann] Paquette even dared “name names,” accusing some popular Massachusetts’ joints such as Bukowski’s Tavern and The Lower Depths of accepting this dirty money. Paquette further noted, “Ever heard the term ‘committed lines’? This is what it means. Breweries buy draft lines so their lame beers aren't irrelevant.” He didn’t name any of these “lame” breweries though he hinted at one, saying “Right now one of the hottest newish brewers in MA pays for lines all over the place....”
But, in fact, it’s not just Massachusetts where this is a major issue. In 2010, a Crain’s investigation found that a trendy Chicago hotel bar had been taking payouts and other bribes from a powerful MillerCoors distributor. Deb Carey of New Glarus Brewing went so far as to call the city of Chicago “a whores' market,” noting, “Everyone has a hand out and everyone wants some cash, (free) beer or a discount.”
I'm interested in informed thought on this, as well as straight-from-the-arse opinion. I only have the latter, but to get a conversation started, here it is. Although this practice sounds bad, I wonder how big a problem it actually is, at least in mature markets. In towns along the West Coast (and I suspect this applies to Boston, too), pubs would be making a poor decision to take uninteresting beers along with a small handout. The competition among bars is such that those offering anodyne choices aren't going to attract many customers. It doesn't really matter how much a brewery is paying you under the table if no one's coming to drink your beer. Seems like the market would be self-correcting.
If anyone has had direct experience with this and wants to chat on or off the record, you can shoot me an email at the_beerax (at) yahoo.com.