Florida microbreweries hope 'growler' bill falls flat

Times/Herald Tallahassee BureauApril 30, 2014 

Staff Photographer

Bradenton brewery operators, like Motorworks Brewery, would much rather have no growler sales instead of what they call problematic legislation. PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald

PAUL VIDELA — pvidela@bradenton.com Buy Photo

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Senate passed a bill Tuesday to allow microbreweries to sell their products in popular half-gallon "growler" containers in exchange for more restrictions on how much they can sell.

Senate Bill 1714, backed by major distributors but opposed by microbreweries, 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.

Bradenton brewery operators would much rather have no growler sales instead of what they call problematic legislation.

"I'll be happy if they let this thing die and we could just fight this thing next year now knowing where they're coming from," said Michael Wagner, who aims to open Little Giant Brewery at 301 Seventh St. E. in July.

SB 1714 gave Wagner cause reconsider if he wanted to continue his brewery dream in Florida when compared with more business friendly laws in places such as Colorado, he said.

An amendment in the bill would allow breweries to have distributor and manufacturer license, which could solve some of the issues, said Wagner, a member of the Florida Brewers Guild.

"Having a couple trucks on the road with my beers and other good beers and also having a brew license, that's something I would explore," Wagner said.

Motorworks Brewery marketing director Barry Elwonger, said the 2,000-keg threshold for instituting the restrictions is so small most states already have a name for them: nanobrewery.

He, too, is hoping the House doesn't pass the microbrewery legislation.

"Given the option between having the growler on there and having a bunch of arbitrary legislation listed on that bill, I would take to operating how we currently are," Elwonger said.

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 state Sens. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater; and four Democrats, including state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, voting against it. Ten Democrats and 20 Republicans, including state Sens. Tom Lee, R-Brandon; John Legg, R-Trinity; and 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."

Business owners roundly rebuke Simpson's claim.

"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."

The beer brouhaha started when Latvala filed a bill to 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 of 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 leftover beer would go flat overnight.

The bill is being driven by beer distributors, including the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, which 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 to impose 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 ambiguities, I'm trying to put clarity into the law. This bill won't limit their growth."

Redner isn't buying it.

"If I get sued, why does the distributor care?" he said, noting the bill refers to kegs, not the barrels 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."

--Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, contributed to this report.

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