Florida growler bill pits microbreweries against big-money beer interests

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauApril 21, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's Republican lawmakers frequently talk about creating a business friendly climate. But Monday, the Senate Rules Committee voted 9-4 for a bill to heavily restrict a burgeoning Florida industry: craft breweries.

Senate Bill 1714 would restrict how much craft breweries can expand in exchange for letting them sell beer in half-gallon containers called growlers that are already legal in 47 states.

Microbreweries selling up to 2,000 kegs a year of their own brew can sell growlers of any size. But if they sell more than 2,000 kegs, they would be prohibited from selling their brew in sealed cans or bottles for home consumption directly from the microbrewery. Instead, they would be required to funnel their business through the state's established beer distributorships.

Eager to keep this time-honored system intact, distributors and major manufacturers have flooded campaign coffers, doubling the amount they've contributed to the senators who have voted on the bill so far from the last election cycle.

"Once you're at a level where you're brewing that much beer, you'll have to play by the same rules as everyone else," said state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

Many brewers who drove up to Tallahassee from Tampa Bay to object to the bill said the 2,000 keg limit is too low.

"I break even at 14,000 kegs," said David Doble of the Tampa Brewing Co. "So 2,000 kegs is absolutely nothing. If this bill were to pass, I am done. For people to say no jobs are to be lost are fooling themselves."

As Americans have thirsted for a more complex brew, craft beer pub numbers have grown exponentially in recent years. With the Internet, local breweries can more easily advertise, market and sell their brews.

Once considered little more than a hobby, about 100 craft beer establishments are expected to open for business in Florida by the end of the year. In Tampa Bay alone, the number has climbed to 31.

This surge in popularity has run afoul of a status quo that has been around since the 1930s. After Prohibition ended, states were granted the power to regulate the alcohol industry. Most adopted the so-called three-tier system: manufacturers sell beer to distributors, which sell to bars, which sell to patrons.

Much of that system has eroded over time.

Specialty beer establishments can already sell their beers in containers of a gallon or more, and in containers of a quart or smaller.

What eludes the craft breweries is permission to sell their beer in popular half-gallon containers. Fans say 64 ounces -- equal to four, 16-ounce servings -- is ideal for drinking in one day. A gallon of beer is too much because the beer goes flat within 24 hours of being opened. A quart, on the other hand, can be on the small side.

Only Florida, Idaho and Mississippi forbid craft beer to be sold in the half-gallon size.

SB 1714 would allow micro-breweries to sell their beer in half-gallon sizes, but would add a number of restrictions such as limiting brewery ability to expand to new locations.

"It's classic crony capitalism," said Joey Redner of Tampa's Cigar City brewery after the vote.

Last month, under pressure from House Republican leadership, the sponsor of the House companion bill, state Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, agreed to water down many of the restrictions imposed upon brew pubs. In these final two weeks of session, legislators will have to reconcile the two bills if any measure to permit growlers is to succeed.

Craft brewers regard state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and House Majority Whip Dana Young, R-Tampa, as their champions, willing to take on the large beer manufacturers and distributors.

After Monday's Senate vote, the craft brewers walked across the Capitol to huddle with Young in her third-floor office.

Young said brew pubs represent a vital industry in need of less regulation, not more.

"I see the dramatic impact the craft brewing industry has on Florida and the Tampa Bay region," said Young. "I am willing to expose the absurdity of the Senate's punitive bill and fight any attempts to hurt the industry ... Why would the Senate want to do this? It goes against every free market, small business principle we have."

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