Politicians Just Don't Understand Beer: The Passing of Florida Senate Bill 1714
The following is an op-ed, with some of my frustrations laid out.
Holy hell, it actually passed. These were the thoughts that went through my mind Tuesday afternoon when controversial Florida Senate bill 1714 passed to a vote of 30-10, effectively signaling to the booming craft beer industry that the brakes were on.
The measure to curtail the craft beer industry, which has seen a 20 percent dollar growth in 2013 nationwide, restricts brewers making more than 2,000 kegs a year (31,000 gallons) from selling no more than 20 percent of their beverages themselves.
What started as a move to legalize a gap in growler container sizes (the infamous Florida law that prohibits the industry standard 64-ounce growler), has ended up here, where the ropes are being tied and the stakes driven.
But how? How did we get here?
The craft beer nation is taking note, and "Big Beer" is scared: Its market in Florida of macro-drinking consumers is having the wool pulled up from over their eyes. People are taking note that one of our civilization's oldest traditions, brewing beer, doesn't have to taste like watery fizzy hopped-up industrial "beige."
Once the experience took hold, the market for craft beer exploded across the Sunshine State, possibly taking lobbyists by surprise. It should be no surprise, however, when you have a state with the fourth-largest population in the United States (more than 19 million) and combine that with being 34th in consumption per capita only 18 months ago.
Couple that with the fact that growth in the market in 2013 was 20 percent in dollar sales and that Florida has but one brewery per 329,848 residents (compared to a state like Oregon with one per 27,365), and it makes you wonder: If this industry is truly continuing to make gains in an otherwise sluggish economy, why throw caltrops into the road?
Yet as of this writing lawmakers in Tallahassee are seeking to reduce that growth through uninformed and biased legislation aimed to curtail gains made by small, independent, and family owned businesses. This coming from a supposedly pro-business-led Senate.
Even the federal government is looking to help spur the industry, with items like HR 494, or the Small BREW Act, which seeks to mend "the Internal Revenue Code to reduce the rate of the excise tax on beer produced within or imported into the United States for brewers who produce not more than 6 million barrels of beer a year."
But what it comes down to is, our state legislators just don't get beer.
If they did, they'd never pass something like this.
They don't understand that beer is not only a beverage to be consumed at keggers and in mass quantities.
They don't understand that beer is a huge draw for tourism in places where it is popular. How many people travel from across the state, nation, and world to visit Dark Lord Day or Hunahpu's Day or even to Pliny release day? What kinds of money are these people spending once they get to their destinations? Hotels, gas, food... it's just the tip of the iceberg.
"It has the potential to mess with my business," said Ruth Berman, who runs Bon Beer Voyage, a boutique beer tourism outfit based out of Boynton Beach. She and her husband, Mike, run tours in Europe and across Florida. "We had people from Philadelphia and Chicago come down for just a weekend to tour a handful of breweries in Tampa. These are people who are looking to experience the beers and take them back. They want to experience what they can't get at home. If prices go up, that's more I have to charge; it's hurting hotels. It goes beyond the beer."
Other countries have taken note of how beer can affect them economically, with Belgium having recently hosted a beercentric tourism summit to woo potential tour operators into setting up packages that include breweries. They realize it's a popular activity that can bring in tax revenue.
But Florida politicians aren't following that kind of logic.
No, Sen. Stargel believes that craft brewers are exploiting a law drafted in the 1960s for Anheuser-Busch that allowed it to sell beer on premises at its theme-park facility as long as it was promoting tourism in the state.
I hate to break it to you, senators, but breweries do bring in a lot of tourists and promote people spending their dollars across the community.
I'll share an anecdote from this past weekend, where myself and a couple of friends traveled over to St. Petersburg and drove up the peninsula hitting breweries on the way -- breweries like Green Bench, Pair O Dice, and Rapp (best small brewery in Florida!) -- eventually ending up in Dunedin at a hotel. We spent gas dollars (road tax), hotel dollars (room tax), tolls (Sunshine Skyway), and food expenses for a nice weekend out.
Think of that, but multiplied by factors of thousands, and you can see where a beer favorable state could get you.
Of course, tourism is probably the least problematic effect to come from the potential of this law coming into being. It comes down to gimping an industry where it hurts the most: that sweet spot between tiny startup and full-fledged production brewery.
So now that 1714 has passed in the Senate, it heads off to find a House companion. Whether that will occur in any meaningful way is up for debate.
The biggest takeaway from all of this, and it's probably the most galling thing I've read out of all of the coverage these past few weeks, is that Stargel thinks she is somehow acting in our best interests, whether we like it or not.
"I believe I know what's best," she said Tuesday.
I don't even know what to say to that. Except, maybe, that you've shown you don't.
How'd the votes go in our area? Only one senator voted against it, the rest... well, here's the list:
- District 25 Joseph Abruzzo - Yes
- District 27 Jeff Clemens - No
- District 29 Jeremy Ring - Yes
- District 31 Christopher L. Smith - Yes
- District 33 Eleanor Sobel - Yes
- District 34 Maria Lorts Sachs - Yes
- District 36 Oscar Braynon, II - Yes
Doug Fairall is a craft beer blogger who focuses on Florida beers and has been a homebrewer since 2010. For beer things in your Twitter feed, follow him @DougFairall and find the latest beer pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.
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