MANATEE -- With just over a month left in the regular legislative session and with six brewery-related bills in play, Florida craft brewers have found a friend in Rep. Greg Steube.
The Sarasota Republican scored a crucial victory this week for craft brewers when he pushed through an amendment that would allow brewers to sell 64-ounce take-away containers of beer known as growlers. The amendment actually allows for any size container between 32 and 128 ounces.
The news is welcome among Manatee County brewers, who see it as a good first step toward cutting through Prohibition-era laws they say restrict their businesses.
"Kudos to him," said Michael Wagner, owner of Little Giant Brewery, a Bradenton craft brewer that is expected to open this summer at 301 Seventh St. E. "I would hope they would be able to hammer it out up north in Tallahassee."
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The amendment, which was approved Monday by the House Business and Professional Regulation Subcommittee for which Steube serves as vice chairman, is one battle won in a legislative war over whether small brewers will be able to manufacture, distribute and sell their beer as they wish within the state's long-standing, three-tiered beer sales system. The system currently separates the functions of brewer, distributor, and retail sales.
Current law has also prevented brewers from selling the 64-ounce growler, a size permitted in 47 other states. Only one-gallon and 32-ounce take-away containers are allowed in Florida.
Steube's amendment doesn't clear away all obstacles facing craft brewers. House Bill 7075, the bill he amended, would still require craft brewers to generally adhere to the three-tier system. But with appropriate licensing, they would be able to both brew and sell beer at their breweries and tap rooms. That's a departure from the way the law was written in the 1930s.
But, as they do now, brewers would have to go through distributors to bring in beers from other brewers for their "guest taps." The number of guest taps would be unlimited with Steube's amendment.
Steube said he wants brewers to be on the same footing as the state's wineries and distilleries. Florida wineries and distilleries can sell their own products on their own premises. Steube piloted a bill last year that provided an exception to state law that allowed Siesta Key Rum to sell its rum at its distillery.
"It seems counter-intuitive, to go out there and not be able to take home a Florida product," he said.
The state's large distributors would like a narrower interpretation of the law. Steube said they contend that allowing brewers to also operate as vendors has them inappropriately operating in two tiers at the same time.
Barry Elwonger, marketing director for Motorworks Brewing at 1014 9th St. W. in Bradenton, said the battle over beer comes down to the mistaken perception
that craft brewers are trying to take over the state's beer industry.
"We're not trying to compete against our distributors," Elwonger said.
The Florida Brewers Guild is backing two bills before the House, bills that would eliminate restrictions on the sizes of beer containers they can sell and restrictions on beer tastings, and another that would allow brewers to sell both their own beers and beers brewed by competitors.
HB 7505 and a fourth House bill, HB 1329, are potentially more restrictive. For example, HB 1329 would restrict some manufacturers from selling beer.
Two bills active in the Senate largely mirror provisions in the House bills.
Wagner, who has been a member of the Brewers Guild for 13 years, said the non-Guild bills feel "paternalistic." While they give small brewers a break on some current restrictions, they also limit them.
"It's like they're saying you can do this, but we're going to take this away from you," he said.
What the final shape of the beer legislation will be is difficult to predict. Steube said he believes a Guild-sponsored bill that eliminates prohibitions on beer tastings for some brewers will easily pass out of the House. The others must still stand for the scrutiny of the House Regulatory Affairs Committee.
If the legislation does survive committee and is approved by the full House, it would still have to be melded with differing language in the Senate bills.