After 20 years leading McDermott, Will & Emery’s alcohol regulatory and distribution group, Marc Sorini is joining the Brewers Association as general counsel.
“This to me is an opportunity to really focus myself on the Brewers Association, small brewer issues,” Sorini told Brewbound. “It feels like coming home for me; I got into my alcohol practice because of my love of what were then called micro brewers — that’s how much of a dinosaur I am — and so this really feels like just coming home and a perfect way to have a new adventure in my career.”
McDermott, Will & Emery announced in October it had hired Alva Mather to succeed Sorini as head of the alcohol regulatory and distribution group after his retirement. A press release said then that Sorini “plans to remain a friend and fan of the firm as he pursues new adventures.”
Sorini’s hiring comes after two rounds of layoffs at the BA, which has floundered financially after the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to cancel all of its in-person events in 2020. Events accounted for nearly 60% of the BA’s revenue, with member dues, advertising and sponsorships, and book and merchandise sales rounding out the rest.
The BA spent $426,669 on legal fees in 2019, according to the organization’s 2019 stewardship report; the bulk of this was for Sorini’s services, which will now move in house.
“For approximately the same expenditure, having Marc on staff will allow the BA to greatly increase their capacity and abilities to promote and protect small and independent brewers,” a BA spokesperson told Brewbound in an email.
Update (12 p.m. EST, July 7): Another spokesperson described Sorini’s salary as “significantly less” than $426,669, but declined to share the exact amount. She added that the BA will still pay external contractors for lobbying and some legal services.
If Sorini approaches that figure, it would make him among the highest paid employees of the BA. BA president and CEO Bob Pease earned $341,950 in 2018, plus $44,370 in “other compensation from the organization and related organizations,” according to filings. In April, Pease took a 25% pay cut after the BA’s first round of layoffs.
National Beer Wholesalers Association president and CEO Craig Purser’s salary was $1 million with an additional $285,406 in added compensation, according to 2018 filings. Jim McGreevy’s total compensation as president and CEO of the Beer Institute was $648,341, with a base salary of $456,315, according to 2018 filings.
BA senior staff also took pay cuts during the pandemic, but details of cuts to other salaries were not disclosed.
The pandemic has proven to be a once-in-a-generation event for brewers and guilds at every level the industry: Thriving taproom breweries saw their draft sales dry up virtually overnight with the closure of on-premise service; bans on large public gatherings indefinitely canceled festivals, normally reliable fundraisers for guilds, and professional sports games, draft sales behemoths for domestic brewers. Booming off-premise retail sales can’t make up for lost sales at bars and restaurants. Although local craft breweries have pivoted to offer to-go sales in the form of curbside pickup and home delivery, those sales aren’t enough to offset the loss of high margin pours in own-premise establishments, as well as draft sales in bars and restaurants.
As craft breweries navigate this crisis, Sorini said the most pressing issues that offer the best hope for survival include passing the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA) and relief for brewers who have had to dump barrels upon barrels of unsellable beer after bars, restaurants and other venues were forced to close.
“Passing CBMTRA, whether that’s an extension or making it permanent, which of course would be preferable, is federal legislative priority No. 1,” Sorini said.
CBMTRA set federal excise tax on beer at $3.50 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels for brewers making fewer than 2 million barrels annually and $7 per barrel for any volume beyond 60,000 barrels. Brewers making more than 2 million barrels annually pay $16 per barrel on the first 6 million barrels and $18 per barrel after that.
These rates are scheduled to sunset at the end of 2020, after an extension of CBMTRA was signed into law in December 2019. The BA has estimated that CBMTRA has saved its members $80 million in taxes.
“That is going to be critical to either pass or at least extend,” Sorini said. “And then obviously, COVID relief of various sorts. We’re part of a perishable food coalition with our beer industry partners and a whole panoply of other food producer and distributor organizations trying to deal with the fact that there was, by most estimates, about $900 million worth of beer that had to get poured down the drain, in the pandemic and the shutdown. So we’re part of that and there’s a variety of other bills that are pending, or at least being discussed.”
On the state level, Sorini said the BA will support state brewers guilds as they advocate for the permanence of local changes that came through legislation and executive orders during the pandemic to assist struggling breweries, such as home delivery and expanded to-go sales.
However, the BA eliminated the position of state guilds manager Acacia Coast on June 26. In response, leaders of 20 state and city guilds penned a letter asking the BA to reinstate Coast, create a seat on its board of directors, or form a guild committee or subcommittee, as first reported by Good Beer Hunting.
Leaders from the BA and the guilds discussed the guild directors’ concerns during a weekly meeting on July 2, a BA spokesperson told Brewbound in an email on July 7. The BA “will continue to work closely with the guilds and remains focused on the critical work ahead,” she said.
In the letter, the guild leaders warned that “the confusion, dissent, distrust and crisis of confidence in BA leadership that Acacia’s dismissal causes will stretch far past your 2020 budget,” according to a draft shared with Brewbound. They called Coast’s dismissal “a blow to all of us and the work we do on behalf of our breweries.”
BA state and regulatory affairs manager Pete Johnson is now the point of contact for guild leaders, Sorini said.
“Pete filled this role before Acacia and will be a great resource for the guilds,” a BA spokesperson told Brewbound. “Additionally, one of Marc Sorini’s priorities will be supporting the guilds’ interests and advocating on their behalf.”
With Sorini’s hiring as a full-time employee, the BA will be better situated to support guilds on legal matters.
“I am going to step into a role where we’re going to up our game in supporting the guilds,” he said. “Legally, there’s been a process for a while, with some guilds being able to ask the BA for legal assistance. That legal assistance was coming from my old firm which was outside counsel.
“The cost is going to be very different for them. And so we’re going to be able to expand our bandwidth in supporting what the guilds want to do at the state level,” he continued.
Among state legislative issues Sorini expects to arise in coming months are proposed excise tax increases as state and local governments contend with budget shortfalls.
“I assure you that we will be collaborating with our wholesale and retail partners throughout the states to fight those,” he said.
Other state and local issues taken up will be at the discretion of the guilds and will vary by priorities of their member breweries. Sorini expects that the expansion of takeout privileges temporarily offered during the pandemic to be the starting point for local legislative work.
The explosion of local craft breweries in the past few years has consisted of those who conduct business via sales of pints, flights and packaged beer to-go from their own taprooms. Sorini pointed to this as response to consumer demand for “dizzying variety and choice.”
“The vast majority of the beer is still sold through distributors, and I don’t see that changing, but there was that long tail where people were coming to the brewery,” he said. “That’s not possible right now, or at least is very constrained. And so, if the drinker can’t get to the beer, then we need to find a way to get the beer to the drinker.”
Since mid-March, when bars and restaurants closed for on-site consumption, governors and mayors have allowed those businesses to sell beer, wine and in some cases, cocktails, to-go.
“We think there’s a path forward there; obviously, all of that depends on whether a given guild wants to make that a priority,” Sorini said. “We think that looks like a logical place to start for the majority of our members. Is that going to be a huge priority for the biggest members? Maybe not.
“But one of the great things about this industry is we’ve seen people support the association and its goals — even if, as an individual company, [bar and restaurant to-go sales] may not be the most important thing for them. That’s one of the beautiful things about the craft beer community,” he continued.
Sorini’s relationship with the BA is long. He began representing the trade group’s predecessor in 1998 and continued after the BA took its current form when the Association of Brewers and the Brewers’ Association of America merged in 2005.
However, his relationship with craft brewing goes back even further. Sorini first tasted craft beer via Harpoon Brewery and Commonwealth Brewing Company’s brewpub while living in Boston after graduating from Lehigh University in 1988. He entered law school at Georgetown University in 1991, and his appreciation for craft beer continued to flourish after graduation.
“I got out and shortly thereafter I remember reading my first Michael Jackson book, the World Guide to Beer in 1994,” he said. “A year out of law school I said, ‘I wonder if I can be a beer lawyer?’”
Sorini worked at a few law firms before landing at McDermott in 1999, bringing the BA’s predecessor as a client with him. With his new position, his legal career has come full circle.
“There’s a lot to be done, but it’s an exciting opportunity for me to come back to my roots of small brewers,” Sorini said. “I’m going to have a blast helping the industry, so it’s all great, it’s my dream job.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Brewers Association’s 2019 legal expenses as $436,669.