TALLAHASSEE — What started as an effort to allow the state's beer makers to sell half-gallon jugs has morphed into all-out war between them and Florida's powerful “Big Beer” lobby of Anheuser-Busch distributors.
By a 9-4 vote, the Senate Rules committee on Monday cleared a bill that was opposed by Florida's craft brewers, dozens of whom came to Tallahassee to speak against the measure. The bill next heads to the Senate floor.
Current law allows brewers to make and sell their own beer from tasting rooms next to their brewhouses, but does not allow a 64-ounce “growler” — the glass or ceramic jugs that craft beer often is sold in after being drawn from a tap. They're legal everywhere but here, Mississippi and Idaho.
Among other provisions, the bill (SB 1714) legalizes 64-ounce growlers, but also requires brewers who produce more than 2,000 kegs worth of beer a year to sell their bottled or canned products to distributors, which they then must buy back to sell in tasting rooms.
The bill's proponents, including sponsor Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, say it preserves the three-tier system of regulating alcoholic beverages that insulates brewers, distributors and retailers from price-fixing.
Stargel, who's not up for re-election till 2016, has taken campaign contributions in the last year from Anheuser-Busch and the Florida-based ABC Fine Wine & Spirits retailer, as well as the Florida Brewers Guild, which represents the craft beer makers. Each gave $500, state records show.
An effort to permit 64-ounce growlers imploded last year after Anheuser-Busch lobbied for a “poison pill” amendment to change the legal exception that allows breweries to open tasting rooms on-site. That language never passed and the status quo remained.
The craft brewers say this year's bill is a small business-killer that will prevent growth and expansion, especially by craft beer start-ups. The 2,000 keg limit is flawed, they said, because breweries that make that little beer can't even afford the machinery to can or bottle their product.
David Doble, owner of Tampa Bay Brewing Co., told lawmakers he just built a new brewery and won't break even till he makes 14,000 kegs. For comparison, Anheuser-Busch brewed 322 million kegs in 2006.
Forcing brewers to buy back their own beer could add as much as 30 percent to the cost. There's also no guarantee of availability, as distributors could sell the beer to other customers first.
“For my growth model at this point, if this bill were to pass, I am done,” Doble said. “I've worked for 18 years; my family has worked for 18 years. These people” – referring to Anheuser-Busch – “are going to crush us.”
Mitch Rubin, head of the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents Anheuser-Busch distributors, said his concern is preserving the three-tier system.
Allowing breweries to sell bottled and canned beer on premises “puts them in direct competition with the retail tier,” he said. That said, the bill still offers “a lot of exemptions for the brewers, regardless of size.”
Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, a friend of the craft beer industry, says she's puzzled by Republican support for the bill because “it goes against everything we stand for.”
“It's punitive regulation and is going to be damaging to small businesses,” she said. “Really, this is mind-boggling.”
One clue: Senate President Don Gaetz is friends with GOP donor and Budweiser distributor Lewis Bear, and Gaetz has told The Associated Press he'll support whatever Bear supports.
The debate has been playing out on online message boards, with commenters calling the measure “crony capitalism.”
One user called on Gov. Rick Scott to intercede, citing his platform of helping Florida businesses to flourish so they can create jobs.
“Scott should be ashamed for allowing one business to bully another,” user “Mbwright” posted on a Metro Jacksonville forum earlier this month. “So much for competition, and an equal playing field for business.”
How to sound off
SB 1714 would change the law governing the sale of beer in Florida.
The bill's opponents include craft brewers, who say its additional regulations will cost them money and prevent growth.
The bill's defenders, including Anheuser-Busch distributors, say it preserves and protects the state's three-tier system of regulating alcoholic beverages.
The bill cleared its final committee Monday, making it eligible to be heard on the Senate floor.
To find and contact your own senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us. You'll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there.