Battle brewing between Florida House and Senate on growler bill

Posted by Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau on April 29, 2014 

The Florida Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow microbreweries to sell their products in popular half-gallon “growler” containers in exchange for more restrictions on how much they can sell, new rules backed by major beer distributors.

SB 1714 wouldn’t regulate any craft beer establishment selling fewer than 2,000 kegs a year. But microbreweries selling more than 2,000 kegs that exceed 20 percent of their sales in take-home consumption would have to sell their product to distributors, and then buy it back at marked up prices.

“It’s a terrible bill because it prevents the little guy from growing,” said Joey Redner, who founded Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing. “We are putting caps on how big companies can get.”

But the measure is expected to fall flat in the House, which killed a similar bill last month.

“The fact that the Senate saw fit to pass a bad bill with no House companion could prove very problematic,” said House Majority Whip Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, an early supporter of craft breweries. “We’ll see how it plays out, but you can take that I’m smiling and all calm right now to mean that it’s going to work out.”

The measure passed by a 30-10 vote, with six Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater; and four Democrats, including Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, voting against it. Ten Democrats and 20 Republicians, including Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, voted for it.

“There is not one person here who would vote to kill jobs,” said Simpson. “But this bill is not about that. It says if you grow to a certain size, you are no longer a small business. It’s a good bill.”

The brouhaha started when Latvala filed a bill that would allow craft breweries to sell their brew in half-gallon containers, which are allowed in 47 other states. Florida allows brewers to sell in containers that are 32 ounces and 128 ounces, but the half-gallon size is more popular with consumers because it’s a generous size, but not so much that a lot of leftover beer would go flat overnight.

But beer distributors, including the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, see craft breweries as competition. Senate President Don Gaetz, who counts Anheuser-Busch distributor Lewis Bear as a close friend, fast-tracked Stargel’s bill that imposed a series of new restrictions on craft breweries.

The bill would let them sell in quarter-gallon, half-gallon and full-gallon containers, but no other containers.

“If someone comes into the bar and asks me to fill a stein, I can’t do that,” Redner said.

Stargel said the bill won’t hurt existing breweries and will only protect them in the future from lawsuits.

“This is a new, growing industry,” Stargel said. “Rather than have them face it in the courts and see them shut down because of ambiguitities, I’m trying to put clarity into the law. This bill won’t limit their growth.”

Redner wasn’t buying it.

“If I get sued, why does the distributor care?” he said, noting the bill refers to kegs, not the barrels that craft brewers use.

“We came to the table hundreds of times,” Redner said. “But you can tell no one listened to us.”

Latvala said the backlash against Stargel’s efforts is the most he’s seen on any legislation.

“I’ve had more telephone calls, correspondences, Facebook posts on this than anything else,” he said. “I’m real hot on this issue. It started as a simple idea, and it evolved into something that will put people out of work, put people out of business.”

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