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Buying in: How money controls Tallahassee

Growler bill pits Florida microbreweries against big-money beer interests

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's Republican lawmakers frequently talk about creating a business-friendly climate. But Monday, the Senate Rules Committee voted 9-4 for a bill that would heavily restrict a burgeoning industry in Florida: craft breweries.

What started as an effort by Florida microbreweries to sell beer to consumers in popular half-gallon "growler'' containers has morphed into a measure some say could put them out of business by strictly limiting retail operations.

SB 1714 is heavily backed by the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, which has controlled beer distribution in the state for decades. The group has at least doubled its contributions to the re-election campaigns of senators who have voted on the measure, which was approved Monday by the powerful Rules Committee.

Call it a sobering civics lesson in the power of campaign cash.

"It's classic crony capitalism," said Joey Redner, the founder of Tampa's Cigar City Brewing, after the Rules Committee vote.

Specialty beer establishments can already sell their beers in containers of a gallon or more, and in containers of a quart or smaller. Fans say the half-gallon — equal to four, 16-ounce servings — is ideal for home consumption in a day. Only Florida, Idaho and Mississippi forbid craft beer to be sold in the half-gallon size.

SB 1714 would allow micro-breweries selling up to 2,000 kegs a year of their own brew to sell growlers of any size. But if they sell more than 2,000 kegs, they would be prohibited from selling their brew in sealed cans or bottles for home consumption directly from the microbrewery.

Instead, they would be required to funnel their business through one of the state's established beer distributorships. Then, they would have to buy back their own product — at marked up prices — before they could sell it to consumers for home consumption.

The purpose, according to the bill's sponsor, is to preserve the state's beer distribution system, implemented to protect consumers in the chaotic post-Prohibition beer market.

"Once you're at a level where you're brewing that much beer, you'll have to play by the same rules as everyone else," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

But brewers who drove up to Tallahassee from Tampa Bay to object said the 2,000 limit was too low.

Redner said Cigar City sells about 100,000 kegs a year, which hardly puts it on par with Anheuser Busch, which sells about 100 million kegs a year.

"We'd lose $175,000 in profit," Redner said. "We can survive that, but other small brewers can't."

David Doble of the Tampa Bay Brewing Co. agreed. "I break even at 14,000 kegs," he said. "So 2,000 kegs is absolutely nothing. If this bill were to pass, I am done. For people to say no jobs are to be lost are fooling themselves."

As Americans have thirsted for a more complex brew, craft beer pubs have exploded in recent years. About 100 craft beer establishments are expected to be open for business in Florida by the end of the year. In Tampa Bay, the number has climbed to 31.

But the traditional distribution system wields enormous clout. The Florida Beer Wholesalers Association has contributed at least $65,600 to the 2014 or 2016 re-election campaigns of senators who so far have voted on SB 1714. That's twice the amount than the last election cycle for the same senators.

Those who voted for the bill in its two committee stops have received a total of $51,500 from the beer distributing industry, while those voting for craft breweries have received only $2,000.

Stargel collected at least $6,000 from beer distributors since late last year for her 2016 Senate re-election race, or about 12 percent of her total. The same interests contributed $500 to her 2012 campaign, when she wasn't sponsoring such a bill.

Sen. President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, brought attention to this pay-for-play dynamic when he told the Associated Press in March that he didn't object to microbreweries. However, he said, they are an issue to one of his friends, Anheuser-Busch distributor Lewis Bear. Distributors contributed at least $8,000 to Gaetz's 2012 campaign, with Bear kicking in at least $2,000.

Stargel said Monday she would work on the bill and reconsider the 2,000-keg threshold.

After Monday's vote, more than a dozen craft brewer owners and employees from all over the state huddled with an ally in the Florida House: Majority Whip Dana Young, R-Tampa.

"I see the dramatic impact the craft brewing industry has on Florida and the Tampa Bay region," said Young. "I am willing to expose the absurdity of the Senate's punitive bill and fight any attempts to hurt the industry.'' Though Gaetz fast-tracked the bill in the Senate, it has no House companion, meaning that its future depends on end-of-session wrangling between legislative leaders.

"Why would the Senate want to do this?'' Young asked. "It goes against every free market, small business principle we have."

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

Growler bill pits Florida microbreweries against big-money beer interests 04/21/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 11:47am]
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