By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The country’s big beer companies have set their sights on craft brewers in the Sunshine State — again.
For nearly two years, craft brewers have pushed unsuccessfully for state authorities to allow them to fill industry-standard, half-gallon growlers for their customers. Now, the state is considering a move that would hinder Florida’s burgeoning craft beer industry even further. At issue is a current exemption in state law that allows breweries to sell their beer on-site without first going through a distributor, which large beer companies must do before their lagers and ales reach consumers.
If the state removes that exemption — which was created specifically to allow beer giant Anheuser-Busch to sell Budwesier at Tampa’s Busch Gardens theme park — craft brewers say their fledgling businesses could take a hit.
And as with the growler fight, craft brewers are facing off against deep-pocketed national beer companies.
The Florida Retail Federation is suing the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and is being joined by the associations that represent Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors distributors. Separately the Florida Independent Spirits Association filed a challenge with the agency.
The groups say they are only trying to clarify rules regarding licenses to sell beer at breweries, but brewers see the action as an attempt to stifle the industry’s growth.
The retailers and distributors are asking the state to stop issuing new licenses to breweries allowing on-site sales.
In response, a trade group representing small brewers began raising money for a legal defense fund. The group, Florida Brewers Guild, has already raised almost $50,000 online as of this week.
Since then, however, Florida Brewers Guild decided to withdraw its lawsuit because the state said it would take another look at this rule.
The Florida Retail Federation, a statewide lobbying group, is now backing away from its legal challenge to a loophole in alcoholic beverage law that benefits the state’s craft beer makers.
That’s because state regulators have voluntarily agreed to revisit the issue, the organization said in an email sent late Friday afternoon.
“It is an affirmative step towards clarifying how this statute is being applied,” the group said.
The federation, which represents a range of liquor retailers, is questioning a decades-old law allowing craft breweries to sell beer direct to consumers in on-site tasting rooms.
…Over time, the exception was changed to require beer makers to have “a single complex, which property shall include a brewery and such other structures which promote the brewery and the tourist industry of the state.”
The exception now allows craft brewers to open tasting rooms next to their brewhouses, introducing visitors to their wares and letting them buy beer to take home.
Beer wholesalers and liquor stores say the exception is unfair to those who work within the “three-tier system,” which mandates that producers, including brewers, sell to distributors, who then sell to retail stores.
This is already being described as an “attack” on the state’s burgeoning craft beer scene. There’s also an online petition, which has thousands of signatures, directed at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Last year, a craft brewery on the Treasure Coast filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The Washington, D.C.-based Pacific Legal Foundation, representing the family who operates the Crafted Keg in Stuart, is challenging a state law that prohibits craft breweries, restaurants and taverns from selling or filling beer growlers.
Under current state law, breweries can sell beer in quart and gallon-size containers, but they can’t sell beer in half-gallon growlers, an industry standard for craft breweries nationwide.
A lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation said this ban is a well-known problem in Florida and lawmakers have failed to fix it the past two years. He said anytime there is an effort to correct this ban, large beer companies send out their lobbyists.