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Breweries say outdated laws holding back growth

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers on Wednesday began lightly treading into the battle between the Big Beer lobby and Florida’s craft beermakers.

The House Business and Professional Regulation subcommittee heard presentations from regulators and law enforcement as it considers how to help yet control the burgeoning craft beer industry.

“The idea is to remove some of the impediments they may have in growing their businesses and opening their businesses up,” said committee chair Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.

“But we need to hear from everybody — the distributors, the manufacturers, the retailers — to make sure that what we do doesn’t impact their business,” she added.

What they eventually do could echo significantly in the Tampa Bay area. With almost a dozen breweries, the region is becoming Florida’s craft beer capital.

“We’re on the front end of an explosion here in Florida, like what has happened in other states” with craft beer producers, said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

The Florida Brewers Guild, which represents the state’s craft brewers, has nearly 30 members.

Regional brewer Yuengling, billed as “America’s Oldest Brewery” and based in Pottsville, Pa., also has brewed beer in Tampa since 1999. It’s the company’s only other manufacturing location outside of Pennsylvania.

Mayfield confirmed that her panel will tackle the contentious issue of beer “growler” sizes, the large glass and plastic bottles that microbreweries use to sell their suds.

During the last legislative session, the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association opposed a bill that would have allowed craft brewers to sell direct to consumers by the half-gallon, in 64-ounce growler jugs.

Florida 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.

“The 64-ounce (growler) is part of the craft culture,” said David Doble, brewmaster and co-owner of Ybor City’s Tampa Bay Brewing Co. “As a state, we look really dumb for not allowing it.”

Mayfield said the subcommittee also will address uniform standards for sealing and labeling growlers as police grow concerned about how to enforce open-container laws with unfamiliar containers.

The legislators saw photos of different alcoholic beverage container seals, ranging from one that looked like the foil top of a yogurt cup, to another that used a stopper and a tough plastic zip-tie.

Craft brewers say they’re worried that the major-label distributors will again try to sink an exception to Florida liquor law that enables smaller brewers to open tasting rooms next to their brewhouses.

The exception allowed Tampa’s Busch Gardens, then owned by Anheuser-Busch, to serve beer at the theme park’s hospitality centers.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the law as written,” said Greg Rapp, owner of Rapp Brewing Co. in Seminole. “If it was good enough for Anheuser-Busch for decades, it should be good for everybody else.”

The complication always has been Florida’s three-tiered system, formed after the repeal of Prohibition. Generally, brewers and other producers can sell only to wholesale distributors. The distributors sell to the retailers, and only retailers can sell to consumers.

The separation is supposed to ensure that nobody in one tier can pressure anyone in another on pricing or selection. Moreover, Florida and other states passed “tied house” laws, which prohibited taverns and bars from being owned by, or “tied” to, alcoholic beverage manufacturers. Tied houses, common in England, were thought to encourage overconsumption.

Mayfield’s subcommittee next meets Nov. 6.


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