Craft beer is back on the 2016 legislative agenda in Georgia.
A forthcoming bill, drafted by Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), could be introduced as early as next week and include favorable changes to the way small beer and spirits producers operate.
Though unfinished, the bill is expected to address brewery tours, retail allowances and food service permits, according to Stephens, who was reached by Brewbound.
“We thought we got everything that we needed last year when we passed a bill that allowed the brewers to give away samples with tours,” Stephens said.
Craft brewers scored a small victory last July when Senate Bill 63 (SB 63), dubbed the “Beer Jobs Bill,” was signed into law. The bill gave breweries the ability to charge varying fees for tours and provide patrons with up to 72 oz. of beer for off-premise consumption, something small producers had not been permitted to offer previously.
Shortly after the bill was signed into law, however, the Georgia Department of Revenue issued a bulletin contradicting the ruling and restricting breweries’ ability to operate under the newly issued changes.
“This year, we are coming back to see if we can do three things,” Stephens told Brewbound.
At the top of that list, Stephens said, is giving brewers and distillers the opportunity for direct sales following facility tours. There will likely be restrictions based on brewery size, he added.
“Potentially, we are talking about an unlimited amount of direct sales,” he said. “We have both sides talking and I think we have the ear of the Department of Revenue.”
The current draft also includes language that allows alcohol manufacturers the opportunity to sell food to tourgoers, a component that Stephens characterized as a “no brainer.”
In addition, the bill would grant brewers and distillers more freedom when promoting the retail availability of their products. Currently, in-state manufacturers are not permitted to reference specific outlets that carry their products. Instead, they are only allowed to refer to the broader channels — grocery stores, convenience stores, bars & restaurants — where their products are sold.
An article filed yesterday by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution also indicated that the bill could include language permitting brewers and distillers to operate up to five additional retail outposts — described by the outlet as “tasting rooms” — where they could both sample and sell their products.
Stephens did not directly address this particular component of the bill, but said a second and yet-to-be released draft is already in the works.
In that draft, additional language that would alter current franchise protections granted to beer wholesalers — something the AJC article also said would be included in the bill — will likely be omitted, Stephens said.
A Convoluted Past
News of the bill comes after a tumultuous 2015 filled with many legislative ups and downs for small brewers.
Last April, Georgia lawmakers passed a stripped down version of the “Beer Jobs Bill,” which was originally introduced by State Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Smyrna) in January and aimed to repeal the ban prohibiting brewpubs from selling beer to go while also giving production breweries the right to sell beer direct to consumers for both on- and off-premise consumption, rather than give it away for free as a sample or part of a tour package.
Though brewers had pushed for the ability to sell up to 72 ounces of beer per person for on-premise consumption and 144 oz. of packaged product to go, the approved edition of SB 63 allowed patrons to consume no more than 36 oz. of beer on-site and leave with 72 oz. of packaged beer for off-premise consumption (provided that the recipient went through a paid tour of the brewery). Under these conditions, the beer would be considered a “souvenir” given at the end of the guided experience.
The new allowance came as an expanded benefit to brewers’ right to serve beer for on-premise consumption as part of a tour. Previously brewers had been able to provide up to 32 oz. of on-site samples.
The new law also gave breweries the right to set varying rates for tours based on consumers’ choice of souvenir.
But in late September, the Department of Revenue back-tracked on the variable price rate allowance, issuing a bulletin requiring brewers to charge consumers a daily fixed-rate for tours regardless of the chosen souvenir.
While some suppliers still provide visitors with product for both on-and off-premise consumption, others have chosen to skip to-go “souvenirs” entirely. It’s a move that helps small companies avoid losses while not shortchanging visitors who only wanted to drink on-site samples.
“At first we were all under impression that you could have different prices depending on what souvenir would be at the end,” said Elyse Moore, a spokeswoman with Marietta-based Red Hare Brewing, “When they reformed the law we just went back to how we used to do things and we stopped offering the to-go option entirely.”
Moore said several other craft breweries have since followed suit.
Then in November, a lengthy report filed by AJC claimed that DOR officials gave preferential treatment to the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association — a group that has historically opposed changes benefiting small brewers — giving distributors advance notice that it was working on the “controversial regulation the agency issued in September.”
If the DOR withdraws the bulletin, Stephens said, the new bill would likely be altered again.
“We would pare it down,” he said.
Brewbound will continue to follow this story as it develops.