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Alcohol Retailers Drop Lawsuit as State Legislature Revisits Tap Room Statute

A 50-year-old alcohol law will soon be revisited by state lawmakers after a trade lobbying group, the Florida Retail Federation, submitted a lawsuit in January seeking to clarify portions of a state statute that allows for a tourism exception to the usually-strict three-tier system.

The FRF dropped its lawsuit this past Friday, according to the TBO, after regulators agreed to look into the issue.

Could this mean a step closer to the death of tap rooms in Florida?

See also: South Florida's Most Anticipated Brewery Openings of 2015

The tourism exception that is being fought over stems from a 1963 statute that allows for sales of alcoholic beverages by a manufacturer that promotes the tourist industry of the state. The full statute, 561.221(2) states:

"The division is authorized to issue vendor's licenses to a manufacturer of malt beverages, even if such manufacturer is also licensed as a distributor, for the sale of alcoholic beverages on property consisting of a single complex, which property shall include a brewery and such other structures which promote the brewery and the tourist industry of the state. However, such property may be divided by no more than one public street or highway."

The participating distributors and liquor stores say this portion of the law allows for unfair advantages under the three-tier system set up after Prohibition, bypassing both the wholesaler and retailer.

At brewery taprooms in Florida and across the country, consumers are offered facility tours, given samples, and afforded the opportunity to purchase merchandise and beer to take home. In the Sunshine State, brewers are allowed to sell beer directly to consumers on premises, with the usual benefit of giving the consumer more limited-batch beers, experimental beers, and the ability to facilitate a creator-consumer relationship not common with mass-marketed beers.

The trade group, in a statement on its website, said: "We filed the administrative petition in order to seek clarity on the tourism exception to the beverage license law. The rule-making process gives us this opportunity; it is an affirmative step towards clarifying how this statute is being applied. We look forward to working collaboratively with the Department and all impacted parties through the rule-making process. At the same time, the legislature is evaluating beverage industry concerns and hearing bills regarding industry licensure and regulation."

Mike Halker, owner of Due South Brewing Co. and president of the Florida Brewers Guild, also made a statement: "We have been in contact with the national Brewers Association, our attorneys, and the ABT in Tallahassee. The board, along with assistance from Josh Aubuchon, is currently putting together a strategy to combat the attacks on our growing craft beer industry here in Florida, not only to address this petition, but also moving forward in this year's legislative session. I assure you, we're working day and night to protect our brewers, our breweries, and our taprooms."

The FRF insists it is only seeking to clarify a piece of legislation "which was initially created solely for attraction venues and amusement parks, locations that contribute significantly through job creation, tax dollars, and travel spending."

Whether that's a fair reading of the law, given the statute's general wording, is up to lawyers, but what can be determined is that the FRF is adamant about keeping an old, rigid, and hierarchical structure to laws in which many states have molded to fit a new and growing industry. An industry that is growing so much that Minnesota; Washington, D.C.; Texas; and New York have all recently made changes to laws to make it easier for brewers to sell directly to consumers.

The question, then, if the focus is solely on the idea of clarifying this exception, becomes: What counts as tourism?

Can traveling a county away for an afternoon festival count as tourism? Does grabbing some pints at a taproom on the way through town? How about hitting five breweries in a day on the other side of the state and staying at a hotel for the night?

These are some of the questions that will need clarifying to make certain groups and lawmakers happy. The decisions could have an effect on all of the breweries in the state, including all of those expected to open this year.

It will be a waiting match between both the wholesalers and the manufacturers until the regular session of the Florida Senate begins March 3.

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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Doug Fairall
Contact: Doug Fairall