There’s a growing sense of optimism amongst Florida brewers who believe 2015 could be the year 64 oz. growlers are finally legalized.
Brewers are hopeful that a recently tabled bill will survive opposition from wholesalers who are okay with growlers, but have hangups pertaining to language in the proposed bill regarding brewery retail rights.
SB 186 — which had originally addressed only the legalization of 64 oz. growlers — was tabled after being tangled up in the state’s attempt to clarify the legal “tourism exemption” that allows for brewers to operate tasting rooms.
The bill is now seeing pushback from wholesalers who otherwise would have been in favor of clean growler reform, but fear language included in an amended version of the bill will disrupt the three-tier system by clearing way for taproom-focused beer companies to act more like publicans than producers. The newest incarnation of the bill not only legalizes 64 oz. growlers but also clarifies language granting beer manufacturers the ability to operate taprooms.
As written, the bill states that a manufacturer needs to only “include a brewery” to qualify for the carve-out.
But rather than push through with a simple growler bill, an amendment was added in response to a lawsuit, filed by the Florida Retail Federation, which challenged the state to examine the tourism exemption. That lawsuit was supported by both the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association (FBWA) — primarily made up of Anheuser-Busch InBev wholesalers — as well as the Beer Industry of Florida, a MillerCoors-aligned lobbying group.
When state regulators agreed to take a closer look at the issue, the lawsuit was withdrawn.
“I think that was the effort, to bring both of those issues together and put them both to bed this session,” said State Rep. Chris Sprowls (R-Clearwater), who helped introduce the bill sponsored by State Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater). “One was not really an issue until the lawsuit was filed… that didn’t sit well with a lot of people in the legislature, including myself.”
But while both brewers and wholesalers generally agree over the legalization of 64 oz. jugs, the tourism exemption and retail privileges are proving to be a stumbling block. Some distributors and retailers have argued that brewers need an ancillary component to the business, aside from the brewery itself, that would boost tourism and qualify a company for the carve-out.
And when the bill was amended to say that a beer company needed only a brewery to qualify, distributors spoke up in opposition, sparking nearly two hours of testimony and debates, according to one report from Saint Peters Blog. That prolonged public testimony ultimately resulted in the bill being temporarily suspended.
FBWA executive director Mitch Rubin, explained his organization’s concerns over lenient retail privileges to Brewbound.
“All I’m really saying, [the amendment] is it’s kind of a repeal and replace kind of idea rather than just repeal,” said Rubin. “There needs to be basically alternative parameters that are more in keeping with today’s situation.”
Rubin emphasized his organization could be in support of a clarification to brewery retail laws, but not as outlined in the amendment.
Sprowls, for his part, believes they have the votes to pass the bill as written, but are waiting for wholesalers to propose “reasonable solutions” before putting it to a final vote.
“Essentially, they’re giving [distributors] a couple weeks to come up with a solution that works for everybody and if they can’t, I think you’re going to see the bill move forward,” said Sprowls. “They said, ‘Look, we’ve got the votes to send this on.’”
Josh Aubuchon, executive director of the Florida Brewers Guild, added that that his organization is in favor of SB 186 and said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that a bill reforming brewers’ growler and retail privileges will find its way to the governor’s desk for signature.
“We don’t want to keep ourselves open to any other challenges,” he said. “We know it’s going to get hammered out, but the long and short of it is we think this bill has got the legs to move and make it through to the finish line, so we’re supporting it anyway we can.”
This latest stall isn’t the first time one divisive dispute in the state has hamstrung the widely unopposed effort to legalize the industry standard half gallon growlers. Last year, a push to lift the ban wound up inspiring SB 1714, which sought to require brewers that produce more than 1,000 barrels per year to sell their beer to and buy it back from wholesalers before selling direct to the public. That bill overwhelmingly passed in the Senate but ultimately died in the House.
Aubuchon, however, believes there has been a distinct shift in tone at the state level with regards to how small brewers should be regulated. That, he said, bodes well for growler and brewery retail reform.
“This year, we’ve got the chair, [State Sen. Rob] Bradley [R-Fleming Island], saying ‘we’re not kicking around the little brewers anymore,” said Aubuchon.