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Lawsuit Challenges Legality of Florida Brewery Tasting Rooms UPDATED

Retail tasting rooms in Florida breweries are coming under fire again. This time, it's the Florida Independent Spirits Association filing a petition with the state challenging the tourism exemption of the state's three-tier laws for alcohol distribution.

The exemption allows retail tasting rooms in breweries, which are at risk in the petition filed on January 8 in the Division of Administrative Hearings.

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

Specifically, the Tallahassee-based group is taking issue with two things. One, according to FISA lobbyist Scott Dick, is that some vendors who apply for brewing permits are denied while some vendors are granted permits.

"There's no consistency with the division," Dick says of the Division of Alcohol, Beverages and Tobacco, against which the petition was filed.

The second, and perhaps the most controversial, issue is what Dick says is the lack of definition of what constitutes tourism at a brewery.

"On the manufacturing side, it says land has to be contiguous and have other structures promoting tourism, and it gives no definition what other structures are," Dick says. "I think there's inconsistencies with manufacturers as well."

Dick lobbies on behalf of the FISA, which is composed of independent retail liquor stores. Because of these inconsistencies, FISA members "suffer economic injury," according to the petition.

Although the three-tier laws in Florida require that a manufacturer, distributor, and retailer of alcohol each must be independently owned, the filing mentions an exception to the law enacted in 1984 that allowed Anheuser-Busch to sell beer from the microbrewery at its theme park, Busch Gardens.

The same exception is what breweries in Florida are using to have tasting rooms where beer can be sold at retail where it's made. Having a tasting room also allows consumers to take home packaged containers, or jugs, of beer known as growlers.

See Also: Growler Stations Come to Florida ABC Stores

It's not clear what impact the petition will have on the future of tasting rooms in breweries. Dick says he does not want to affect existing businesses but is hoping to force the ABT to make rules that clarify the tourism exemption.

Mike Halker, owner of Due South Brewing in Boynton Beach and president of the Florida Brewers Guild (a craft brewers advocacy group), is aware of the new petition.

"We certainly do not take someone attempting to take away our tasting rooms lightly, and I assure you we will do everything we can to address this situation and keep all of you informed as much as possible," Halker wrote in a legislative alert email sent to FBG members.

Emails and phone messages seeking comment from Halker were not immediately returned. But we'll have an update as soon as we hear from him.

Update: Mike Halker reached out to Clean Plate Charlie by phone from the West Coast. Halker said that he is surprised by what he calls an attack by wholesalers and the retailers on Florida breweries. At this point he and the Florida Brewer's Guild are gathering resources and are currently discussing what to do next. They contacted the Brewers Association for assistance. He said he should know more information in three weeks.

It's not the first time tasting rooms have come under attack. But if this challenge is successful, then it could spell doom for the craft beer industry in Florida, according to Halker.

"There's a possibility that at the end of this that the Florida breweries will lose their tasting rooms," Halker said, "and if they lose their tasting rooms, then the breweries will leave the state of Florida."

Interestingly ABC Fine Wine Liquor and Spirits recently began installing growler stations in some locations in Central Florida. But this falls outside of the tourism exemption of the three-tier system. Andy Abernathy, chief operating officer of ABC, is also a FISA board member.

As of Monday two more groups, the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Industry of Florida, have joined FISA in seeking clarifying rules for the exemption.


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David Minsky is U.S. Navy veteran and Tulane graduate who has experience reporting on stories from California, South Florida, and the Deep South. He also won some journalism awards. Email or tweet David with story tips and ideas.
Contact: David Minsky