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Craft beer regulation likely to go flat in legislative battle

TALLAHASSEE — One of the most closely watched issues facing Florida lawmakers, how to regulate the booming craft beer industry, seemed to be falling flat on Tuesday.

In the morning, senators agreed to let brewers sell their products in popular half-gallon "growler" containers — in exchange for sales restrictions some brewers said would destroy them.

But by afternoon, the measure's prospects looked dimmer than ever in the lower chamber.

"That bill has an uphill battle in the Florida House," said Speaker Will Weatherford, explaining that since the growler bill has no House companion, it would require agreement from two-thirds of his members to even bring it to a vote.

"The fact that the Senate saw fit to pass a bad bill with no House companion could prove very problematic," said House Majority Whip Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, an early supporter of craft breweries. There now are 28 in the Tampa Bay area.

"We'll see how it plays out, but you can take that I'm smiling and all calm right now to mean that it's going to work out."

SB 1714, backed by major distributors but opposed by microbreweries, wouldn't regulate any craft beer establishment selling fewer than 2,000 kegs a year. But microbreweries selling more than 2,000 kegs that exceed 20 percent of their sales in take-home consumption would have to sell their product to distributors, and then buy it back at marked-up prices.

"It's a terrible bill because it prevents the little guy from growing," said Joey Redner, who founded Tampa's Cigar City Brewing. "We are putting caps on how big companies can get."

The measure passed by a 30-10 vote, with six Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and four Democrats, including Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, voting against it. Ten Democrats and 20 Republicans, including Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, voted for it.

"There is not one person here who would vote to kill jobs," Simpson said. "But this bill is not about that. It says if you grow to a certain size, you are no longer a small business. It's a good bill."

The brouhaha started when Latvala filed a bill that would allow craft breweries to sell their brew in half-gallon containers, which are allowed in 47 other states. Florida allows brewers to sell in containers that are 32 ounces and 128 ounces, but the half-gallon size is more popular with consumers because it's a generous size, but not so much that a lot of leftover beer would go flat overnight.

But beer distributors, including the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, see craft breweries as competition. Senate President Don Gaetz, who counts Anheuser-Busch distributor Lewis Bear as a close friend, fast-tracked the bill sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, that imposed a series of new restrictions on craft breweries.

The bill would let them sell in quarter-gallon, half-gallon and full-gallon containers, but no other containers.

"If someone comes into the bar and asks me to fill a stein, I can't do that," Redner said.

Stargel said the bill won't hurt existing breweries. Rather, it will protect them in the future from lawsuits.

"This is a new, growing industry," Stargel said. "Rather than have them face it in the courts and see them shut down because of ambiguities, I'm trying to put clarity into the law. This bill won't limit their growth."

Redner wasn't buying it.

"If I get sued, why does the distributor care?" he said, noting the bill refers to kegs, not the barrels that craft brewers use.

"We came to the table hundreds of times," Redner said. "But you can tell no one listened to us."

Latvala said the backlash against Stargel's efforts is the most he's seen on any legislation.

"I've had more telephone calls, correspondences, Facebook posts on this than anything else," he said. "I'm real hot on this issue. It started as a simple idea, and it evolved into something that will put people out of work, put people out of business."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@tampabay.com.

Craft beer regulation likely to go flat in legislative battle 04/29/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 8:49pm]
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