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article imageProposed bill in Florida could kill craft brewing industry Special

By Sean Fraser     May 1, 2014 in Food
Tallahassee - The fate of craft beer brewing in Florida is in the balance as a new bill has been introduced to regulate the craft beer industry. Craft brewers are calling it “extortion” and claim it favors big beer distributors.
James Stevens, of Crystal River, Fla., recently started Nature Coast Brewing Co. with his brother Jake, after purchasing a craft brewing license that would allow them to make and serve their beer on-site at Burke’s of Ireland, a pub owned by Denise Burke, James’ partner.
Burke s of Ireland  Crystal River  FL
Burke's of Ireland, Crystal River, FL
Stevens bartends at Burke’s, and is passionate about craft beer. He and his brother home brewed before starting their own company.
“I enjoy the flavor of pure, good beer, natural ingredients, and making it yourself,” Stevens said of his love of craft beer. “Putting your passion for something into something and having other people tell you that they like it is pretty good.”
The bill, labeled S.B. 1714, would require craft breweries that make more than 2,000 kegs a year to sell their stock to distributors and then buy it back from them to sell the product in-house for off-site consumption.
This would put craft breweries in compliance with the state’s three-tier law, which requires makers of alcoholic beverages to sell their products to distributors, who then sell the products to retailers.
Stevens said that the bill will affect how fast Nature Coast Brewing Co. can expand and create more jobs.
“I can’t grow at the rate I would like to,” Stevens said. “There’s no incentive for me to grow as fast as I want.”
The bill is being championed by Republican state Senator Kelli Stargel. She claims that small breweries are exploiting a loophole in the law originally created so that Busch Gardens in Tampa could brew and sell bottles for customer consumption at home. S.B. 1714 would add “certainty in the law to do what they are doing.”
“I know they don’t believe it,” Stargel said on April 30. “And I’m sorry, I know my kids don’t believe it when I tell them they can’t do something, but sometimes I know it is what’s best.”
Campaign contribution records show that in 2013, Stargel received $5,500 from big beer distributors and that her campaigns have gotten donations from Anheuser-Busch, Miller-Coors and Pepin Distributing as far back as 2008.
Doug Bailey, vice president of Industry Affairs at Anheuser-Busch, sent a statement to Digital Journal relating to the company's view of growlers: "Anheuser-Busch is supportive of deregulating container sizes in Florida, including allowing for 64 ounce growlers. However, important protections for consumers related to safety, proper labeling and responsible packaging standards should apply to all brewers, regardless of container size."
The involvement of Anheuser-Busch distributors and the financial backing of Stargel by “Big Beer” has many craft brewers in the state, including Stevens, claiming that lawmakers have the interests of big distributors in mind instead of the small business interest.
“I’d rather have a 32-ounce growler than have the Big Bev representatives in Tallahassee tell us exactly what we have to do,” Stevens said. “It’s outrageous.”
Opponents of the bill, like Sen. Jack Latvala, have claimed that the bill is an attack on small breweries to protect the big distributors. He has backed a bill that would legalize the 64-ounce growlers with no strings attached. His proposal was blocked by Senate president Dan Gaetz, who also received campaign donations from big beer distributors.
“It is going to stifle an industry that's been growing in Florida,” Latvala said. “I know when I was elected to come back to the Senate in 2010, my mantra was jobs -- improving the economy.”
The bill passed a Senate vote of 30-10 and now faces the House of Representatives. However, Rep. Dana Young of Tampa says that there is almost no support of the bill in the House. She claims that the bill will die trying to overcome procedural hurdles that it must pass before the legislative term ends on Friday.
Young worked with Stargel to revise the bill on Monday, but claims that Stargel “agreed to every suggestion, but then ignored 95 percent of what I suggested.”
Stargel did modify they bill to allow small breweries to sell 20 percent of their stock in-house before having to sell the rest to distributors.
According to Burke, her pub and Nature Coast Brewing have a five-year plan in place to one day have a brick-and-mortar brewery and be able to sell their beer for off-site consumption and distribute to other bars in the area. However, the bill would completely destroy their plans.
“It just kind of tells us, ‘why even try?’” Burke said. “It’ll kill us before we even get started.”
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