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Beer bill changed, ready for Senate vote

A controversial bill pitting craft brewers against the established beer industry was somewhat watered down Monday in the Florida Senate.

Brewers from across the state have been fighting a proposal that would require them, once they reach a certain size, to sell their bottled products to distributors before buying them back to serve at their own establishments.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, offered a compromise amendment Monday, allowing the larger breweries to continue selling up to 20 percent of their production without going through the distributors.

Stargel has faced harsh backlash from craft brewers who said the new regulation would threaten their fast-growing local brew industry. The brewers called the proposal a protection racket for major beer distributors and said the Legislature was reaching into their pockets to further enrich distributors.

The bill’s controversial aspects have largely overshadowed the original purpose of the bill: legalizing 64-ounce “growlers.”

Stargel has defended her efforts, which she said will bring small breweries under the same regulations as large ones, evening the playing field. The bill, she said, is meant to protect the three-tier beer regulation system that was put in place in the disorder following prohibition.

Stargel said she had listened to brewers’ concerns, and offered the amendment Monday to assuage them. “This bill does no harm to anyone in the brew industry,” Stargel said. “This is to ensure the expanding craft beer industry is in full legal operation, and not operating in a grey area.”

But most brewers will remain skeptical of the regulation, Stargel admitted.

The bill would let small breweries, under 2,000 kegs in production, sell all of their beer either by draft or in growlers or in sealed containers to go with no come-to-rest requirements. Larger breweries could continue selling 20 percent of their own bottled products directly, but would have to go through distributors for the rest. Customers could buy up to one keg per day from a brewery.

Brewers appearing at Senate committees in protest of the bill have said forcing them to go through distributors does nothing but dip into their pockets. Many have said the 2,000-keg limit was too low and will smother the emerging industry, with many breweries still growing.

The bill has incrementally been walked back from some of its more controversial points. A previous version would have required brewers to pay the distributors even if the distributors never picked up the beer and moved it.

Stargel accepted about $6,000 in campaign contributions from the beverage industry over the past year, according to state election records. Thousands more went to other senators who voted the bill forward through committees.

Other senators were still skeptical of the bill Monday, despite Stargel’s compromise amendment. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said she was still concerned about all of those brewers who said they were being put out of business.

Others questioned the purpose. “Why do we need this bill?” asked Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville. “Why not just do the growlers and be done with it?”

Stargel said the craft brewers would ultimately benefit from being under a firm regulatory framework along with their larger corporate competitors.

Stargel’s amendment passed and the bill was placed on third reading. It could be voted on this week, with four days remaining in the legislative session.

Herald Tribune - 1 May 2014
 
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