ST. PETERSBURG — At 2 in the afternoon, Green Bench Brewing is empty but for a bearded bartender and a dark-brown dog named Porter. Within a few hours, though, this brewery transforms into a packed nightspot, with bartenders, over the din of a live band, serving pints and flights of craft brews made on-site.
A year and four months after opening, the brewery is fast becoming a local fixture as Florida's beer scene grows with Tampa Bay at its center.
Florida's nascent craft-brewing industry still has less economic impact per capita than any other state. That's according to data from the Brewers Association, a national trade group. By comparison, in Oregon, Colorado and California, hundreds of craft brewers pump out millions of barrels of beer each year and billions of dollars into the state economy.
Yet craft beer is undeniably growing statewide — the number of breweries has more than doubled since 2011 — and microbrewery evangelists see the legislative session starting Tuesday as a critical opportunity to foster faster growth. Their agenda aims to loosen regulations and help local brewers soar to the upper echelon of American craft beer.
But big beer distributors and liquor store owners have long objected to loosening regulations, saying it will give craft brewers an unfair competitive advantage and offer minors easier access to alcohol.
But this year, for the first time, brewers and other industry groups are finding common ground. With support from powerful Tampa Bay Republicans (Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater sponsors a key bill, House Minority Leader Dana Young of Tampa has long fought for brewers and Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg is an investor in Green Bench) and a willingness to compromise, craft breweries could win some of their first victories in the Capitol.
"The pieces in Jack (Latvala's) bill are a really good compromise," said Josh Aubuchon, executive director of the Florida Brewers Guild, the primary advocate for craft breweries. "I don't think anybody can say they got shortchanged."
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Craft beer's rise has been slow in Florida.
Although Aubuchon says some regulations have delayed Floridians' embrace of microbrews, others aren't so sure.
"I think a lot of things get to Florida slowly," said Nathan Stonecipher, who had to fight for changes to St. Petersburg ordinances before he could open Green Bench a little more than a year ago.
Bart Watson, an economist with the Brewers Association, said Floridians can expect the growth to accelerate in coming years, whether they're successful in changing state laws or not.
"The Southeast is really starting to catch up," he said. "And growth rates in the Southeast are actually faster than in some of the other places."
But brewers remain adamant that they'll be better able to reach consumers and build a loyal following if some laws change. For years, their lobbying has focused on growlers, 64-ounce refillable beer jugs that have caused more than their weight in political angst.
Florida law is unusual in its ban of the half-gallon containers, which are a standard size for loyal beer aficionados nationwide. The state allows beer to be sold in sizes up to 32 ounces and more than 128 ounces — but nothing in between.
"The growler's a way for our beer to travel off-site easily," Stonecipher said. "A quart is almost too small to even bother taking home, that's about two beers, and a gallon's too large. No one wants to take home a large gallon of beer."
Growlers are essential, he said, because bottling and canning are too expensive for small upstarts.
During presession committee hearings, longtime growler opponents, including the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Industry of Florida, supported legislation that would allow breweries to fill the half-gallon containers.
With a growler bill likely to pass, the Florida Brewers Guild has set its sights on bigger goals: opening tasting rooms and distributing their own beer.
Liquor stores and distributors have risen against the broader agenda, saying it could erode a structure that has been in place for decades.
Eric Criss, president of the Beer Industry of Florida, told a Senate committee in February that it's "not wise … for this Legislature to rush into the total deregulation of a system that has worked so well for us for years."
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Under Florida law, the beer industry operates within a three-tiered system of manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Each group is separate, and no one company can operate in more than one tier.
As craft brewers push to blur those lines, advocates for distributors and retailers are worried. Executive director Mitch Rubin of the Beer Wholesalers Association said that if new rules aren't done right, loopholes could make it more profitable to sell or distribute beer outside the existing regulatory structure. The brewers aren't convinced.
"All of that headache and everything else just to sell a beer a little cheaper?" Aubuchon, of the brewers, guild said. "That ain't profitable."
Conservative supporters of the most sweeping changes, such as Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, say eliminating regulations will help small businesses grow and encourage the free market to work.
But to those who worry fewer regulations could make alcohol cheaper, the argument is concerning.
"Free-market rhetoric doesn't work with intoxicating substances," Criss told lawmakers. "We're not talking about cupcakes here. This is alcohol."
Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.