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'Growler' bill ready for Senate vote, but still opposed by microbreweries

TALLAHASSEE — Despite late changes the Senate sponsor made Monday to gain wider support, Florida microbreweries still oppose a measure that would limit the amount of beer they can sell in sealed containers.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, filed an amendment Sunday to SB 1714 that would allow the state's 80 to 90 craft beer establishments to sell malt liquor in popular half-gallon "growler" containers.

Under the bill, those selling fewer than 2,000 kegs a year would have no restrictions imposed. Those above that level couldn't sell more than 20 percent of their annual brew for take-home consumption, according to the amendment adopted Monday. Instead, they would be required to sell the product through one of the state's established beer distributors, then buy it back — at marked-up prices — before they could sell it to consumers who can drink it at home or elsewhere.

Stargel, who has received at least $6,000 from beer distributors for her 2016 Senate campaign, said the bill is meant to protect small business.

"We're lessening the restrictions on the small guys," Stargel said. "Guys who are under 2,000 (kegs) are not restricted in any way whatsoever. They brew their beer, they can sell it all in cans and bottles."

But the Florida craft beer industry objects to the new restrictions. They are already allowed to sell their brew in 32-ounce and 128-ounce containers, without restrictions. The proposed limits would put some of them out of business, they say.

"Unfortunately, the amendment contains provisions that would harm the economic growth of the craft beer industry in Florida and places limitations on brewery operators that are not currently in Florida law," said Josh Aubuchon, a Holland & Knight lobbyist representing the Florida Brewers Guild, which includes 28 breweries in Tampa Bay. "It would be difficult for us to support any language that places additional burdens on small businesses that are experiencing such rapid growth."

Stargel faced tough questioning from supporters of the craft breweries, including Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

"If you put an arbitrary figure at 2,000, and then impose restrictive regulations, isn't that counter to supporting small business?" Gibson said. "Isn't that government interference in the free market?"

Stargel insisted it was a measure to protect small brewers, arguing that large craft beer establishments like Cigar City in Tampa, which brews 878,000 gallons a year, aren't small businesses. (Yuengling, by comparison, sells 30 million gallons a year, Anheuser Busch 283 million.)

Although she trumpeted the amendment in a news release as a mere clarification of industry regulation that will allow small breweries to prosper, Stargel didn't expect their support.

"I've been trying to get them to the table," Stargel said. "But they never came to the table. They didn't come see me, but believe me, I heard from them in blogs, tweets and on Facebook."

The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday.

'Growler' bill ready for Senate vote, but still opposed by microbreweries 04/28/14 [Last modified: Monday, April 28, 2014 9:45pm]
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