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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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County staying on sidelines in beer battle

— Craft brewing might be a budding industry in Tampa, but local brewers found out Wednesday they don’t have the heft to win support from Hillsborough County commissioners in their battle against big beer distributors.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe tried in vain to get his colleagues to send a letter to the local legislative delegation supporting craft brewers and opposing legislation the brewers say will strangle their operations.

A bill backed by Anheuser-Busch distributors, and passed Monday by a state Senate committee, would require brewers who produce more than 2,000 kegs of beer a year to sell their bottled or canned products to distributors. The small brewers then would have to buy their beer back to sell in their tasting rooms. Some craft brewers say if the bill passes it will put them out of business.

Sharpe framed his argument for the letter in terms of a David-versus-Goliath battle between a new, emerging industry and the old, established beer-bottling barons.

“These small businesses are new and are being told by the large, established industries, ‘Hey, you’ve got to play by our rules,’” Sharpe said. “The problem is, the rules were established for the old, established industry and these new guys are different. They have different needs and criteria for how they’re going to be successful.”

But the response from the other board members was summed up by Commissioner Sandy Murman, a former state representative.

“It’s not our issue,” Murman said. “It’s not our fight.”

Commissioners Ken Hagan and Victor Crist said they shared Sharpe’s passion for craft beer but felt the letter was not appropriate for several reasons. Crist, who spent 18 years in the state House and Senate, said the issue is complicated and commissioners are not privy to the details that have been hashed out in legislative committees.

“Having worked on these issues before, I know there are many different sides to this,” Crist said. “In order to get accomplished what you want to see done, there are many different components of this that need to be addressed.”

Crist said big brewers might like to see the craft brewers succeed and be able to distribute their own products because it would put the distributors out of business. Then the major brewing companies could set up their own distribution networks and even open their own bars.

Hagan said he didn’t understand the issues well enough to endorse either. Plus, he said, the commission historically doesn’t take sides for or against one industry.

Sharpe argued it is the commission’s duty to battle on behalf of a local industry that’s about to be crushed by burdensome regulations. There are 100 craft breweries in Florida, and 31 of them are in Hillsborough County, he said. Only two other states besides Florida prohibit the craft brewers from selling their product in the popular, 64-ounce “growlers” made of ceramic or glass that can be reused.

“Like with a lot of industries, you’ve got the big guy, who’s established, whose sales are struggling a little bit, looking at the little guy who’s innovative and creative,” Sharpe said. “They tend to be younger entrepreneurs who are now being crushed with more regulation.”

The proliferating craft breweries in Tampa are popular with the millennial generation _ the young, creative workers and entrepreneurs that city and county leaders say are needed to drive a high-tech economy. Sharpe cited Colorado, which touts its craft beer industry in an innovation package the state mails out to “attract the young techies.”

Brenden Chiaramonte, a local craft beer hobbyist who has friends in the industry, spoke at the meeting on behalf of Sharpe’s letter. Chiaramonte spoke in terms of a “culture” and “community” that has grown up in the area around beer-making. He said his friends in the business don’t have the ability big brewers have to raise massive amounts of capital to expand their businesses.

“It will cripple them,” Chiaramonte said of the Senate legislation. “They don’t have access to hedge fund money. These are people who started out buying a truck on their credit card.”

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