Craft brewers clash with Big Beer lobby
TALLAHASSEE - A battle is brewing between Florida's craft beermakers, including Tampa's popular Cigar City, and the Big Beer lobby, representing the state's distributors.
It came to a head in this spring's legislative session when the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association opposed a bill that would have allowed craft brewers to sell their suds direct to consumers by the half-gallon, in 64-ounce jugs known as "growlers."
The law already allows bigger and smaller growlers, quart-size at 32 ounces and gallon-size at 128 ounces, but the 64-ounce is the most popular among craft beer aficionados and is considered the industry standard.
That bill didn't pass, but Big Beer had already tucked what some privately called a "poison pill" into an amendment - one that goes far beyond the growler question to target how the state's craft beer industry does business.
The battle ended in a stalemate - for now.
But the sides already are squaring off for next session in a conflict with its roots in the Prohibition era and the three-tiered alcohol distribution scheme that has emerged in Florida since then.
The wholesalers' amendment would have changed an exception to Florida liquor law that enabled Tampa's Busch Gardens, then owned by Anheuser-Busch, to serve beer at the theme park's hospitality centers.
That exception allows smaller brewers like Cigar City's Joey Redner to open tasting rooms next to their brewhouses, introducing visitors to their wares and letting them buy beer to take home.
"Tasting rooms are our marketing," Redner said. "That's our neon sign."
After the country's failed experiment with Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, states wanted to make sure no one - like mobsters - had monopoly control over booze.
They created a three-level system in which producers, including brewers, could sell only to wholesale distributors. The distributors then would sell to the retailers, and only retailers could sell to consumers. The idea was that nobody in one tier could unduly influence anyone in another, especially on pricing.
That system is what Mitch Rubin wants to preserve.
Rubin, executive director of the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, disagrees that his group's opposition is about protecting its own bottom line.
He points to a bill that passed this year, allowing the state's craft liquor distillers to directly sell two bottles per customer per year, as "conscious policy making."
"If you're going to have an exception, the question becomes, what is the nature and extent of that exception?" he said. "This is a legitimate public policy debate."
In 1963, Sen. Tom Whitaker Jr. of Tampa introduced a bill allowing beer manufacturers in Florida to get a "vendor's license for the sale of alcoholic beverages." It's not apparent from historical legislative records that Anheuser-Busch, which had a brewery in Tampa, sought the change.
The bill was considered by the "Committee on Temperance," eventually passed both chambers and then-Gov. Farris Bryant let it become law without his signature.
Over the years, the liquor law exception was changed to require beer makers to have "a single complex, which property shall include a brewery and such other structures which promote the brewery and the tourist industry of the state."
The exception let Anheuser-Busch give away samples of its beer at an exotic-bird garden next to its Tampa brewery, which closed in 1995 and was torn down.
The bird garden evolved into what became the Busch Gardens theme park. In 2009, Anheuser-Busch's new owners decided to sell off its theme parks.
The Florida Brewers Guild, which represents craft brewers and brewpubs, this year supported the half-gallon growler bill (HB 715/SB 1344).
In March, Sen. Maria Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat, offered an amendment to the Senate bill. The Florida Beer Wholesalers Association had contributed $2,000 to Sachs' 2012 campaign, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The amendment would have allowed half-gallon growlers, as well as take-home sales by "startup breweries."
But it also would have required breweries taking advantage of the exception to have "at least 25 enclosed acres of land," "a controlled entrance and exit," "permanent exhibitions and a variety of recreational activities" and "at least 1 million visitors annually (who) pay admission fees."
In other words, the legal exception-which had never explicitly mentioned theme parks-would almost certainly apply only to them and not to craft brewers.
"I'm not saying every brewer has to do what Busch Gardens did; that's a huge investment," Rubin said. "But there have to be other tourism structures," arguing that a brewery alone isn't sufficient to promote tourism under the exception's language.
Sachs did not respond to a request for an interview. Her amendment was never voted on, and the House and Senate versions of the growler bill died in committee.
The beer distributors "don't like that we're using that exception for our small brewers," said Josh Aubuchon, the Florida Brewers Guild's executive director and general counsel. "Beer tourism is becoming big, with the craft beer movement gaining speed."
Cigar City's beers, which have won national and global awards, have gained a national following since debuting in 2009, including its 'Jai Alai' India pale ale and 'Maduro' brown ale. About 1,500 people a week visit the Spruce Street brewery. Its yearly beer release party-Hunahpu's Day, named after the Mayan god of chocolate-attracts thousands, and Redner now employs 52 people.
Both sides expect to butt heads again next session. And retail sales and tasting rooms at breweries will continue to be a sore point for Big Beer.
"That's where we can tell our story," Redner said. "And if our story wasn't compelling - and our product wasn't so good - we wouldn't be here."