Settling is in quotes for a reason. After getting royally screwed by a confusing and rather silly piece of legislation last year, craft brewers in Georgia were screwed far worse when the state Department of Revenue issued new guidelines late last year that effectively rendered the new law moot.
The issue at hand? Whether breweries can directly sell beer to customers, eschewing the ironclad three-tier system that’s run Georgia since the repeal of prohibition in the 1930s. Rather than direct sales to customers, allowed in 46 other states, the legislation passed last year required brewers to sell tours at varying prices. “Tours” would include a small amount of beer to drink on premises and up to 72 ounces to take home. However, the Dept. of Revenue put the kibosh on that when they issued new rules last year, telling brewers they couldn’t have variable prices for tours. One set price. Anything else was against the law.
Brewers were rightfully outraged and this year, the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild threatened to file new legislation that could upend Georgia’s three-tier system and possibly allow direct sales to customers. Distributors were furious, legislators were likely nervous they would lose hefty campaign contributions from distributors if they supported such legislation, and therefore a compromise was worked out. Brewers could once again go back to the strange tour system set up in last year’s SB 63.
Hardly a victory.
In the vast majority of states, you can walk into a craft brewery, sit down at the bar and order a pint. If you want beer to go, there’s a cooler filled with bottles, cans, and six-packs. Grab what you want, pay at the bar, and go. While the distributors don’t profit from these sales, it seems unlikely that a small number of direct sales truly hurt distributors’ bottom dollar. After all, if you don’t live near the brewery and want a six-pack or a pint, you’ll need to hit up your local package store or watering hole, which are supplied by distributors.
During a recent two-year jaunt to Florida, I experienced this system first hand, and it was smooth sailing. In Gainesville, I could visit the awesome Swamp Head Brewery, grab a couple pints of Stump Knocker pale ale, enjoy them in their taproom, and still visit a package store, or even Publix to pick up a sixer. Swamp Head got their money, the package store/grocery store got their money, and so did the distributors. As a result, Swamp Head was able to grow by leaps and bounds and opened a gorgeous new brewery last year. They hired additional staff, drastically increased production, and were able to provide distributors with more product to stock in stores and bars around the state.
However, Georgia remains woefully behind its neighboring states. In recent years, South Carolina did away with this antiquated system, that discourages beer industry growth, and guess what? Breweries are popping up throughout the state. It’s an industry on the rise. The beer industry continues to grow in Georgia, with several new breweries slated to open this year alone, but much of that growth is stymied by cronyism, healthy campaign contributions from distributors that the breweries simply cannot match, and a confusing system that puts breweries in a tight spot, and confuses the hell out of customers (seriously, walk into a brewery while they explain the tour system to a customer, watch the customer’s reaction as they plead helplessly that they just want a few beers to take home to share with friends).
While brewers and the Guild begrudgingly accepted the “compromise” to return to the system stripped away from them last year, they cannot stop fighting. The battle might be over for 2016, but if Georgia’s rather Republican and conservative legislature supports small businesses, they must come to their senses, reject the rampant cronyism they’ve developed with distributors, and support craft breweries. Allowing a small amount of beer to be consumed on premises or at home should not be considered a “souvenir” just to appease the suits who stop by your office promising big campaign contributions this year. Realize that allowing a few pints and bottles sold on premises might be what a brewery needs to employ a few extra brewers and taproom staff.
Those are taxpayers. Those are jobs created by small businesses that you tout so often on the campaign trail and on the floor of the legislature. Sure, they’re brewing beer and not moving continental headquarters to the metro-Atlanta area, but breweries support communities, they’re growing, and they deserve our respect and support, regardless of whether you enjoy or support the products they’re creating.
In 2017, it’s time for legislators to cease the placating of distributors and let breweries enjoy the same benefits enjoy by the vast majority of breweries across the United States.