- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida liquor stores and beer distributors are challenging the way the state issues licenses allowing craft breweries to sell their products in tasting rooms, a move that brewers say could put dozens of breweries out of business or, at the very least, halt rapid growth in the industry.

The Florida Retail Federation is suing the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and the associations that represent Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors distributors have asked to intervene in support of the suit. Separately, the Florida Independent Spirits Association filed a challenge with the agency. The association includes ABC Fine Wine & Spirits chain, which is the state’s largest liquor store chain.

The groups said they aren’t trying to shut down the brewery tasting rooms, but rather to clarify the law that allows the brewers to serve draft beer to drink on site and cans and bottles to take home.

“We’re not asking for them to withdraw any licenses. Moving forward, we’re asking them to stop issuing licenses as of right now under their current practices and to design a rule that better explains how the law should be applied,” said Samantha Padgett, a lawyer with the retail federation.

The groups contend that the state agency has been improperly issuing retail licenses to brewers under a law passed to allow Anheuser-Busch to provide beer at the Busch Gardens theme park in the days when the brewing giant owned the attraction. If the agency doesn’t spell out rules on how the law should be applied, the Legislature might have to come up with a fix, Padgett said.

But brewers, who have fought with distributors over tasting-room beer sales over the past few years, don’t believe that’s the only motive behind the actions.

“If they get a clarification, then what? We know our tasting rooms drive them crazy. I can’t imagine that their intent at the end of the day is to get a clarification of the rules and then they’re just going to be done with it,” said Ben Davis, owner of Intuition Ale Works in Jacksonville. “Existing breweries and new breweries could be in limbo until this gets resolved.”

Eric Criss, president of the Beer Industry of Florida, which represents MillerCoors distributors, said he supports the idea of tasting- room sales for breweries, but the licensing process needs significant clarification.

“It is our belief that such clarification will benefit brewers, retailers and distributors,” he said.

The actions also come after beer distributors said they wouldn’t fight a bill that would legalize 64-ounce beer containers known as growlers. The issue is a top priority for brewers. Florida allows 32-ounce and 128-ounce growlers, but it is the only state in the country that doesn’t allow the half-gallon size that is most popular with beer lovers.

Republican Rep. Dana Young of Tampa, who has pushed for legalization of the half-gallon growlers, was upset by the lawsuit.

“This lawsuit seems to be aimed at shutting down the tasting rooms that consumers love and I think it begs the question: What good is a 64-ounce growler if the brewery tasting room does not exist to sell it?” Young asked. “It puts the brakes on a booming industry in Florida.”

Florida has grown from a state with six craft breweries in 2007 to nearly 90 now. Most start-up breweries need the profit from tasting rooms in order to grow.

“Without the tasting rooms, you’d see a majority of these breweries go out of business,” said Josh Aubuchon, a lobbyist for the Florida Brewers Guild. “When you first get started and you’re making 500 barrels a year, the tasting room is your lifeblood. That’s how you stay afloat.”

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