Bradenton lawmaker aims to put an end to squabble between craft breweries, distributors

MANATEE -- A Bradenton lawmaker's legislation could make it easier for craft brewers to sell their beers from their taprooms.

State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Bradenton, filed House Bill 107 on Dec. 15 to provide a new license and path for Florida craft breweries to do business.

Last week, both the Florida Retail Federation and Florida Independent Spirts Association filed separate suits against the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation to challenge a so-called "tourism exception" license that craft breweries, such as Darwin Brewing Co., and Motorworks Brewing are using in Bradenton. The lawsuit is designed to prevent craft brewers from selling their beers directly to customers.

"If my bill, as currently written, passes it also makes the lawsuit moot," Steube said. His bill also removes restrictions on sales of bottles at distilleries.

These groups represent major players in the alcohol industry, with Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors distributors being repre

sented by the Florida Retail Federation and ABC Fine Wine & Spirts, the state's largest liquor store chain, represented by the spirits association.

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 onsite 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 improperly issued retail licenses to brewers under a law passed to allow Anheuser-Busch to sell beer at Busch Gardens 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.

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.

"It's another weapon in the arsenal of people who want to regulate our business," said Michael Wagner, who hopes to open Little Giant Brewery in Bradenton this year. "Florida is like the king of manipulating the gray area of politics."

If the distributors and retailers win their case, Wagner won't be able to open the brewery he's been working on for the past five years.

"I love Bradenton and chose to start my brewery here because I love this place," Wagner said. "But a lot of people always question that business decision because there are other states that are much more open to brewers."

Whether that suit fails or succeeds, Steube believes he has a solution that is similar to a bill he filed last year.

He said his bill allows craft breweries to operate as they are now with minor changes -- mainly regarding industry language concerning defining contractual relationships between manufacturers and distributors. Steube said the manufacturing jobs and tourism driver craft beer has become can't be ignored.

"From a tourism perspective and from a small business perspective, these guys have invested an incredible amount of money that starts a business, creates a brand and creates a Florida product," Steube said, adding their ventures also support Florida agriculture.

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

"The financial ramifications are huge. Taprooms provide a great advantage to a start-up business and it's an amazing opportunity to educate people about our beer," said Matthew Cornelius, director of operations for Darwin Brewing Co. Cornelius said he doesn't know enough about Steube's bill to discuss it, but in general he supports a way to provide craft breweries like his to operate normally.

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.

Steube's bill would also prevent people from buying alcohol using food stamp cards.

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter can be reached at 941-745-7095. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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