Bill that could hurt small breweries moves forward

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s rapidly growing craft beer industry could suffer a setback under a bill approved by a Senate committee Monday.

The bill would force all but the smallest breweries to buy their own cans and bottles of beer from distributors before selling them to visitors. Those that would be allowed to sell cans and bottles to go wouldn’t be large enough to afford the bottling equipment needed to package it, brewers said.

A large and vocal contingent of craft brewers from around the state said the bill would force them to either stop or scale back expansion plans or possibly force proposed breweries to look out of state.

“That bill is a play by large corporations to add more regulation, more requirements, more stress to small breweries,” said Ken Rosenthal, who opened Pair O’Dice Brewing Company in Clearwater six months ago. “No mistake, this bill will seriously hinder and even kill growth in the craft beer industry.”

The Senate Rules Committee approved the bill (SB 1714) on a 9-4 vote. It now goes to the full Senate.

Breweries would still be allowed to sell beer on tap in tasting rooms. And they’d be able to sell half-gallon beer jugs, called growlers, that now are illegal in Florida, along with the gallon and quart growlers that currently are legal.

The bill was changed to eliminate a provision that would have forced all breweries to sell their cans, bottles and kegs of beers to a distributor and then buy it back at a markup without the beer ever leaving the brewery. If the bill passes, distributors would have to pick up the beer at their brewery, bring it back to their warehouses and then redeliver it to the brewery.

The only exception would be breweries that make 1,000 barrels or less, the equivalent of 2,000 15-gallon kegs. But brewers said that’s not large enough to be able to profitably bottle or can beer.

David Doble, whose family has owned the Tampa Bay Brewing Company brew pub for 18 years, said he is expanding the business to include a separate brewery with a tasting room.

“The break even point of my new place is 14,000 kegs - 2,000 kegs is absolutely nothing,” Doble said. “If this bill were to pass, I am done … we’re going to lose a lot.”

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the goal of her legislation is to preserve the three-tier system of alcohol distribution the federal government set up after Prohibition ended in the 1930s. It basically ensures that alcoholic beverages are passed through a distributor to get to retailers. Exceptions have been made for purchases where products are made, like buying wine at a winery or rum at a distillery.

Mitch Rubin, a lobbyist for Anheuser-Busch InBev distributors, told the committee breweries would lose rights they now have, but they’re still getting sales that would go through distributors under a strict three-tier system.

“It’s not what we like as distributors, but it’s a quarter of a loaf and we’ll take it,” he said.

Not all big beer distributors agree. The Beer Industry of Florida, which represents MillerCoors distributors, opposes the bill.

“Brewers and distributors are good partners and some craft brewers need limited retail privileges to build their businesses,” Beer Industry of Florida lobbyist Eric Criss said in a press release. “It’s in distributors’ interest that small brewers should have a well-defined, limited exception in the statute that allows them to operate as retailers, both on-premise and off-premise.”

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