Although craft beer enthusiasts are happy to be able to finally live in a state that can now offer them 64-ounce growlers, the legislation was always about more than the selling of a half-gallon sized jug. One could say the half-gallon growler had become the political pawn in what had led to a fierce battle over the very complex laws regarding the manufacturing, distribution and selling of beer that have existed since Prohibition.
Although there were a number of compromises that went into producing the bill, craft brewery owners and their advocates in the Legislature say the number one thing that came out of the legislation was that it now allows the creation of retail licenses for manufacturers. In January, a group of retail advocacy groups and wholesaler networks filed a lawsuit with the state over the what has been known as the ‘tourist exception‘ that has allowed for those tasting rooms to be developed outside of the parameters of the three-tier system. However, those groups withdrew the challenge when the state agreed to look at the matter.
“I felt as a legislator, and frankly as a lawyer, that it was imperative that we clear up any ambiguity in the statute this year because the possibility that rule making thru DBPR (Dept. of Business and Professional Regulation) could result in something that could hurt craft breweries and hurt the existence of tasting rooms,” says Tampa GOP state representative Dana Young, who has championed the legislation over the past three years.
Mike Halker, President of the Florida Brewers Guild, strongly agrees with Young.
“If that bill wasn’t going to pass, there was a possibility that tasting rooms would have been taken away from the craft beer industry in Florida, and I would dare you try to find a brewer in the state of Florida that wouldn’t tell you that their tasting room is either a very important part, or the most important part of their business,” he said, adding, “If they had taken away our tasting rooms, the number of breweries would have been cut in half in maybe a year.”
If a bill’s success is measured by how both sides say they didn’t get everything wanted but can live with it, then that appears to be the case here.
“The bill has nothing in it that could be considered I think, negative except for that limitation on the number of locations,” says Young.
The bill limits breweries to eight vendors licenses. Opinions vary about that compromise. Young says she would have preferred no limitations on the number of locations because it “limits the ability potentially for small businesses to grow and thrive in our state, but that was what was required to get this bill passed.”
Mitch Rubin with the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association says his group would have preferred that to four to six vendor licenses.
But Joey Redner with Cigar City Brewing says he can live the limits, saying a limit of eight licenses for breweries is comparable to laws around the country. Few breweries in Florida have more than a couple right now anyway, he says.
He reserves his objections to a provision in the bill that limits the amount of beer a company could transfer from one location to another.
Currently, the law allows a brewery to transfer as much product as possible to another brewery throughout the state, without limitations, without having to pay a distributor to move their own product.
But a concern from the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association is that this could allow for a company to create a “makeshift” or “faux” brewery that really isn’t a legitimate brewhouse, allowing them to continue to bypass distributors without creating the actual product. So now the law demands that if a brewery produces say 500 barrels a year at their Tampa facility, they are limited to sending only 500 barrels to a second facility in Tallahassee.
Halker doesn’t buy the “slippery slope” argument that a major brewery could exploit that current loophole in the law and blow it open. “That has never happened anywhere in the country before,” he insists.
A third change in the law appears to be a win-win for everyone: this will now allow certain retail stores like Publix and Total Wine to offer free tasting of beer products. Somewhat amazingly, current law allows for those retailers to offer such tasting for wine and hard liquor, but not for beer. The new law changes that.
“We can live with the bill,” is Mitch Rubin’s final take on the law. It’s certainly a lot more craft brewery friendly than some of the provisions that were being floated during the 2014 legislative session, when the brewers expressed concerns in particular about Lakeland Republican Senator Kelli Stargel‘s bill. One version of her bill would have allowed for the sales of 64-ounce growlers, but also require microbreweries to sell through distributors if its sales are high enough.
“It was much more civilized,” Rubin says about the debate in Tallahassee in 2015.
Craft beer supporters say they hope to tweak some of the language of the bill in 2016, saying they think they can make the case that some of the limitations imposed on them will stifle the growth of the industry.