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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Senate issues beer bill recommendation, beer community pushes back

Late on Friday, Jan. 17, out from under the Gold Dome came the final report of the Georgia Senate Study Committee on Brewpubs and Alcoholic Beverage Tastings. For those following the fight for House Bill 314 (and its Senate companion, SB 174), now on its second and final attempt to allow Georgia breweries and brewpubs to sell a limited amount of their own beer (288 ounces, or one case, per person, per day) on-premises to customers for off-premise consumption, the name of the committee may come as a surprise. After all, the original bill did not pertain solely to brewpubs, nor did it focus on "tastings."

The 21-page report includes history, testimonies given at the three study committee meetings last fall, and a recommendation for on-premise brewpub sales:

Growlers up to 64 ounces per-person should be allowed to be sold by brewpubs for off- premises consumption if food was consumed on-premises with the purchase; this is somewhat similar to Senate Bill 55 (2008) known as "Merlot-to-go." Specifically: one partially consumed growler per patron may be removed from brewpub premises so long as:

1. The growler contains malt beverages manufactured on the premises;
2. The patron purchased and consumed a meal on the premises and consumed a portion of the growler containing 64 ounces of malt beverages manufactured on the premises;
3. The partially consumed growler is capped by the patron and placed by the licensee or its employees in a bag or container that is secured in such a manner that it is visibly apparent if the bag or container has been subsequently opened or tampered with, and a dated receipt for the growler and meal shall be provided by the licensee and attached to the bag or container; and
4. If transported in a motor vehicle, the bag or container with the capped growler is placed in a locked glove compartment, a locked trunk, or the area behind the last upright seat of a motor vehicle that is not equipped with a trunk.

The Georgia beer community's response was swift and negative.

"The study committee report recommends allowing something, the removal from premises of a partially consumed, and re-sealed, brewpub-purchased growler for home consumption, that nobody ever asked for," John O'Connell says.

O'Connell helped revive Georgians for World Class Beer and runs Fusica Architects & Brewworks, both with his wife, Jennifer.

"Especially the brewpubs that would have under-carbonated, rapidly-oxidizing beer leaving their premises. If the recommended law is implemented I have a hard time seeing any brewpub actually taking advantage of it," he adds.

Independent craft-beer consultant Matt Simpson agrees. "It ends up hurting the brewpub, because it gives the consumer a falsely negative perception of what the product is and should be," Simpson says. "[The legislators assumed] that craft beer is the same as wine, and it's not. You might get two or three days from a bottle of red wine after it's been opened. Craft beer immediately begins to degrade as soon as that growler is open."

Last Wednesday, the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild issued a press release stating that the report "favors prohibition-era, big-government regulation over modern free market principles." The Guild also listed its problems with the bill, which included the fact that breweries were removed, that the "Merlot-to-go" comparison represents a fundamental misunderstanding of craft beer, and "the lack of any meaningful consideration of the consumer demand." It's fairly seething, as far as press releases go, and communicates more than a little frustration on the part of the Guild.

Chase Medlin, who brews at Decatur brewpub Twain's Billiards & Tap, is also frustrated, though more optimistically so, perhaps, than other Ga. beer advocates. He laments the conditions requiring a food purchase and drinking a portion of the growler on premise before leaving with it, but thinks that, if passed, the bill as-is would still be "a move in the right direction." He also cites neighboring states North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama, and the positive impact of their more favorable laws.

"These freedoms help breweries grow much faster which, in turn, stimulates local economy, and provides more jobs and tax dollars," Medlin says. "In our neighboring states, you can go to a production brewery and buy full pints in the taproom. This kind of change in Georgia law would not negatively effect the three-tier system, but quite the opposite; the bigger the breweries get, the more we need our distributors. Brewers want to fill tanks with beer, not worry about refrigerated trucks and delivery logistics."

GCBG President John Pinkerton met with Georgia State Senator Jack Murphy following the report to tell him that the committee's recommendations were unacceptable. He says Murphy agreed that the recommendation was fraught with problems and could not be passed into law as written. While Pinkerton is cautiously optimistic that a positive compromise can be found, it will have to come fast, as the legislative session could end as early as mid-March. If no action occurs in that time, HB 314 and SB 174 will have to be reintroduced and/or rewritten next year.

"We remain hopeful that we can convince leadership that this is a pressing issue and it's not as controversial as everybody seems to think it is," Pinkerton says. "Forty two other states in the country don't think this is controversial. If it doesn't get passed, we'll be back next year. We're here to stay. This is just one thing. We haven't even gotten started yet. We haven't spent any money. We've only been doing this for a couple years. If anybody thinks we're a pain in the neck, wait until we actually get our act together."

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