The bill we knew was coming (“Big Beer Bill”) in the aftermath of the self serving comments from Eric Criss just a month ago was filed in the Florida House of Representatives yesterday.  Criss is president of Beer Industry of Florida, Inc., a Tallahassee-based trade association of Florida’s largest beer distributors.

Criss (not so) implicitly gave the beer distributors credit for drunk driving fatalities, arrests and convictions dropping.  He added that it was the three tier system that followed prohibition and the role of distributors that helped curb social problems such as high-volume drinking, domestic violence and worse (credit to him for an attempt to instill fear in the hearts of unsuspecting readers that have not yet reached the part of the article that says who he is and why he is writing the piece).  Of course, the misplaced argument fails to mention that other laws are in place that would continue to curb those social problems. He has, at other times, noted that it is just not fair to retailers for breweries to have guest taps (sell the beer manufactured by other breweries) in their tap rooms. Criss’ comments essentially focus on consumers and retailers rather than the group he actually “advocates” for — Florida’s distributors. From the perspective of the distributors, its is quite possible that retailers can become upset with them for trying to sell them beer that is also being sold to a brewery right down the street.

While we could guess that a bill of this nature was coming based upon Criss’ comments, this bill is not the doing of Eric Criss and the Beer Industry of Florida. It does generally come from Big Beer. The Florida Beer Wholesalers (these are the distributors that represent ABInBev), led by executive director Mitch Rubin, are the ones behind this bill. Rubin has cited “public health concerns” in the past when asked about blocking growler bills. Rubin has claimed a willingness to support growlers and taprooms in the past, but clearly not without major restrictions. Rubin and the Florida Beer Wholesalers have been credited in the past with killing previous growler bills.  To this point,  Criss and the Beer Industry of Florida have not taken any position on HB 1329 (and likely will not).

This is a Big Beer thing.  Big Beer doesn’t like that entrepreneurial and creative folks are manufacturing a great product that threatens to continue to eat into their market share and they want a way to hold the craft beer industry back. The distributors and craft brewers do need each other – but brewers don’t need overly restrictive regulations killing their business drafted by Big Beer. Criss says that he and his group (while they certainly won’t agree with small brewers on a number of fronts) would like to work with the brewers to find a compromise.

With that background laid out, the Big Beer Bill (House Bill 1329) was filed Monday morning, March 3, 2014, by Representative Ray Wesley Rodrigues out of Fort Myers. This is the guy that sponsored a bill in the past to protect fracking operations from lawsuits in Florida.  Fracking is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside (check youtube.com clips to see what the process does to the water supply of those who live near the fracking).

Back to the bill: It provides a definition of the term “growler”, something that is needed.  It provides other regulations of growlers and their sales as well, but those aren’t quite as important as the rest of the Big Beer Bill.  It does however define a growler as those containers that only have a capacity of “32 ounces or 64 ounces”.

The Big Beer Bill then gets down to the business of stifling small business.  It (i) provides limited situations in which a craft brewer may actually sell beer to consumers, (ii) (incredibly) ensures that such brewers must include in their business plan that they intend to supply beer to distributors (seriously – this is real – they don’t want you starting a brewery that doesn’t have solid plans to distribute, i.e., a community brewery and taproom) and (iii) prohibits the sale of beer brewed by any brewery other than that licensed to manufacture beer on those premises (no guest taps) for off premise consumption (growlers).  It was a long sentence.

First, brewers will be able to sell their own beer on premises. In some circumstances, a brewery with an existing vendor’s license may have guest taps (but no growlers for these) UNLESS “the manufacturer ceases to manufacture malt beverages for the purpose of supplying its distributors and exporters for 60 days or more, but continues to operate under its vendor’s license.”  This bill requires that the brewery intends to supply its distributors or else it will lose its ability to have any guest taps.  As an aside, it should be great (not really, this is sarcastic) to see any case law and administrative law develop as distributors go after their clients or potential clients for not operating their brewery the way the distributor sees fit. Also, if the brewery doesn’t have good cause (war, terrorism, natural disaster, construction that began prior to a specified time) for closing, then the brewery will again lose its ability to have guest taps.  If you want to claim that a death of a close family member should qualify as good cause, you may be in for a tough argument.

Second, the bill further determines (redefines) when a licensed manufacturer of beer may be issued a vendor’s license.  Again, it requires an intent by the brewer “to manufacture and package malt beverages for distribution to distributors and exporters”.  A long-standing Utah law requires restaurant employees to ask customers if they intend to order food when they begin their time in the restaurant by ordering an alcoholic beverage.  That’s not the kind of law to strive toward.

Third, the Big Beer Bill limits the beer that brewers licensed after a given date can sell (July 1, 2014).  It notes that “[a] manufacturer of malt beverages licensed as a vendor under this subsection may not sell malt beverages at the licensed premises, except those that are manufactured, wholly owned, and otherwise packaged at the same facility for sale by the manufacturer to licensed distributors and exporters.”  In case you wondering about collaboration beers that are common in a mostly-friendly and collaborative industry, the next sentence provides that “[a] malt beverage that is produced at the licensed premises for or in collaboration with another manufacturer under a contract or other agreement is not a wholly owned malt beverage of the manufacturer for purposes of qualifying as a vendor under this subsection and may not be sold to consumers at such premises.”  NO COLLABORATION BEERS FOR SALE ON THE PREMISES.  This means if the folks at Wynwood Brewing and M.I.A. Brewing create a great beer together that represents the Miami beer scene, it will have to be sold to a distributor and taken to retail accounts.

Regulations like these have no real value other than to stifle the small businesses that are creating great craft beer in Florida. Please contact your local legislator and help ensure that this Big Beer Bill does not become law.

Quick hitter of what this bill would do:

  • Limits growlers to 32 ounces or 64 ounces, eliminating the gallon growler
  • Requires that a brewery have the intention to supply to distributors in order to have a taproom
  • Prohibits breweries from serving beer manufactured by any other brewery in their taproom (no guest taps)
  • Grandfathers in previously licensed breweries.  However, those breweries lose that grandfathered status if they essentially make ANY changes, i.e., expansion/adding new licenses/changing location
  • Breweries that are grandfathered in cannot sell any other brewery’s beer in growlers
  • Collaboration beers would only be allowed to be sold through a distributor (not on the brewery’s premises)
  • Consumers could not buy cans, bottles, kegs for off-premises consumption. Only growlers.