State agency to rule on craft brewery tasting rooms exception


A state regulatory agency says it will release specific information tomorrow about an upcoming workshop that the Florida Retail Federation says will provide “clarity” regarding a 50-year exception in alcohol beverage law in Florida. That exception has allowed the craft brewing industry to thrive over the past decade.

Earlier this month the Florida Retail Federation and the Florida Independent Spirits Association announced that they would pursue legal action, challenging the way the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation has been licensing tasting rooms. Those tasting rooms, usually constructed right next to craft breweries, have been instrumental in growing the industry in Florida, and their legal advocates feared the worst with such litigation.

But the Retail Federation announced on Monday that they had been successful in convincing the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to initiate the rulemaking process to set forth the standards and criteria in which they will issue such tourism exception licenses in the future.

“We think this is win,” says Samantha Padgett, an attorney with the Retail Federation. “This goes to the the rulemaking process, and to bring everybody to the table is a great result.”

Padgett says that offering an exception that allows craft breweries to open tasting rooms has the potential to impact every tier of the industry. “So our concern was if you’re offering an exception it can impact other licensees. And it was really important for us to have clarity for the retail licensees and any exception out there is to have clarity and how it applies.”

Josh Aubuchon with the Florida Brewers Guild, an advocacy group for craft breweries, says he thinks lawmakers can provide that clarity with new legislation. He questions the motivation of the Federation.

“Who are they really doing this on behalf of?” he asks, mentioning that every craft brewery in the state is also a member of the Federation, and they’re as happy as can be under the current situation. “Everybody dealing with alcohol is in the three-tier system. So, I understand they’re trying to make the point that they’re regulated by three-tier. Well, guess what folks? The exception that a manufacturer has for a vendors license is prevalent throughout the country, and has been the law of the land in a form or fashion in the state of Florida since 1963.”

The past couple of years the craft brewers have been attempting to get  legislation passed that would repeal the unusual ban on 64-ounce growlers in craft brewing tasting rooms. Florida is one of only two states (Utah is the other) that doesn’t allow patrons to take beer home from a craft brewery in the half-gallon refillable jug.

Attempts to a straight-forward  bill doing just doing that has become mired in amendments added on to it by “Big Beer” representatives, and ultimately have died before coming up for floor votes. State Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) announced legislation last month for the 2015 session that simply asks that the ban on 64-ounce growlers be repealed.

Industry observers say that this is the year that it should pass, with the influential Florida Beer Wholesalers Association insisting that they won’t block such a bill.

But there were initial fears that the Retail Federation’s lawsuit would prevent future tasting rooms from opening up, angering craft brewery operators and their legal advocates. They say those tasting rooms have been a boon for the Florida economy, and don’t understand any actions by the state that would slow their growth.

“That was certainly not our intent,” says Padgett, the Retail Federation’s general counsel, about the legal action that has now been pulled back. “And I think you’re seeing in the aftermath that their concerns are being taken up by the legislative process, so I anticipate that we will see clarity through the rulemaking process and we’ll also see clarity thru the legislative process.”

But when it comes to the craft brewing industry in Tallahassee, prepare to be surprised again. The legislative session kicks off in less than five weeks.

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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