Craft breweries fear lawsuit could threaten tasting rooms


The legislative war between the craft brewing industry and “Big Beer” over the past couple of years appeared to be fading out going into the 2015 legislative session.

But it might be back on, now that the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Independent Spirits Association have filed petitions to intervene in an administrative lawsuit against the state division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. The suit alleges that the state agency is incorrectly applying the “tourist exception” to grand a brewery a CMB (Cereal Malt Beverage) license and vendor license and incorrectly granting CBM brewery licenses to entities which already have a vendor license. In addition, the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association (FBWA) and the Beer Industry of Florida have also filed petitions to intervene in an administrative lawsuit against the state division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, but have not been granted that right yet.

That “tourist exception”is what initially allowed for Tampa’s Busch Gardens to serve beer at the theme’s hospitality centers years ago. It’s been that same exception that has allowed craft breweries throughout the state to open tasting rooms next to their brewhouses, allowing customers to taste their product and take home. Such tasting rooms have helped pave the way for the craft brewing industry to gain in popularity across the state, particularly in the Tampa Bay area.

In the past couple of years there has conflict between the growing craft beer movement and the beer establishment in Tallahassee, led by lobbyist Mitch Rubin with the FBWA. That group has taken the lead in attempting to tie legislative proposals to eliminate the ban on 64-ounce growlers in craft breweries to bigger issues related to the craft brewing industry. Florida is one of only two states that still maintain such a ban on those growlers.

Tampa GOP state Representative Dana Young has sponsored legislation the past few years to repeal the ban on 64-ounce growlers. She says that because those vendor licenses expire in October, it’s not inconceivable that the DPBR could say that until the issue is resolved, they won’t reissue any licenses.

“Imagine that,” she said today. “They don’t issue licenses for tasting rooms, and we have close to 30 breweries here in the Tampa Bay region that would have no tasting rooms for consumers? I mean that’s inconceivable. That’s terrible.”

But Mitch Rubin with the FBWA denies that’s the case. He thinks that it’s about “clarification” about when there should be exceptions applied for applications to open a tasting room.”This in no way affects anyone with an existing license.” He says that Busch Gardens exception simply needs to be clarified.

Joey Redner with Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing doesn’t believe Rubin.

“One hundred percent I believe that it can potently shut down tasting rooms,” Redner said today. “I think it’s a bad thing for breweries that want to start small and grow.  I really wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for my tasting room.” Redner says that his company is flourishing now, but it was due to his ability to sell his product via tasting rooms, and thinks that small breweries could be hurt by changing the current policy.

Last year the FBWA pushed for a bill sponsored by state Senator Republican Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) that would have required microbreweries in the state selling more than 2,000 kegs per year of their own brew to distribute their bottled and canned products through an established distributorship and then have to buy back their own product (at marked-up prices) to sell to their customers. But intense opposition, led by Tampa Bay area craft breweries, helped the bill die on the Senate floor. However, the brewers attempts to repeal the ban on 64-ounce growlers once again failed to pass.

This year Pinellas County Republican Jack Latvala from Clearwater has introduced in the state Senate (and Dunedin state GOP representative Chris Sprowls in the House) a straightforward bill that calls on repealing the ban, and Latvala said last month he was confident it would finally pass.

Josh Aubuchon, a lawyer and lobbyist for the Florida Brewers Guild, was skeptical about the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association peace offering a month ago. He said at the time that the bills that the FBWA pushed in 2014 to protect the three-tier system of alcohol distribution ended up “only attacking breweries about what they could or couldn’t do.”

Total economic impacts from the industry were estimated to be at $301 million in 2012 and $432 million in 2013, according to statistics that Senator Latvala referenced at his press conference touting his bill last month.

“The conversation over the last two years has been about 64-ounce growlers,” says Representative Young. “But what good is a 64-ounce growler when the lawsuit appears to be aimed at shutting down the tasting rooms completely? That directly contravenes what the consumers in the states of Florida want.”

Calls to the Florida Retail Federation were not returned by the time we posted this story.

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at [email protected].


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