Growler bill advances in Florida Senate despite deep opposition from Tampa Bay brewers

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A Senate committee today passed revised legislation that would allow Florida craft breweries to legally sell 64-ounce growlers, but at too high a cost in the opinion of many of those brewers who testified before legislators.

Joey Redner from Cigar City Brewing, John Doble from Tampa Bay Brewing Company and several other local brewers make the trek to Tallahassee this afternoon to blast the amended bill being sponsored by Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland). Her legislation would allow the breweries to sell the larger-sized containers of beer for the first time — but also would require any brewery that sold more than 2,000 kegs a year (or 1,000 barrels) to be subjected to the three-tiered system for packaged containers of alcohol, requiring that distributors get a cut of those products.

Stargel's original bill outraged the craft brewing industry and their supporters. Before it was amended, it included a so-called Come to Rest provision that would have allowed the distributors to take a cut of the beers made and sold by the individual manufacturer — without the beer ever leaving their premises.
Her bill no longer does that — exempting breweries that sell less than 1,000 barrels a year. But any establishment that sells above that number will now be subjected to having to pay distributors. Stargel made clear that she is a fan of the three-tier system of distributors, manufacturers and retailers all playing their part in selling beer. She said that she wants to allow the burgeoning craft-beer industry to grow in Florida, but complained that for too long the Legislature has stood still and allowed it to "morph." By that she meant that craft breweries have used a loophole in the law to blur the three-tier system by manufacturing and selling in their own tap rooms, cutting out the middleman — in this case, the distributors.

The man who speaks for those distributors in Tallahassee is Mitch Rubin, Executive Director with the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association. He, said it wasn't an ideal bill, calling it a "quarter loaf." But he said that the craft brewing folk should like it, since it still allows them to sell 5,000-80,000 kegs and guest taps as well without having to deal with the distributors.

But his ideological opponent in this battle, Josh Aubuchon of the Florida Brewers Guild, said the bill would still ban brewers with more than one location from transporting them between sites. And he questioned why it was the craft-brewing industry that was being subjected to the scrutiny of the three-tier system, saying that clearly isn't the case with wine and spirits.

A bevy of local Tampa Bay brewers said the bill stunk. Thomas Powers with the soon-to-open Florida Mad Beach Craft Brewing Company said the proposed legislation would sink his plans to open a second outlet. David Doble with the Tampa Bay Brewing Company said his break-even point was selling 14,000 kegs annually. "2,000 kegs is absolutely nothing," he said with disgust. "If this bill passes, I am done ... I've worked for 18 years and these people are going to crush us."

"This is a protectionist bill," complained Saint Somewhere Brewing Company's Bob Sylvester, who said the only thing he and his colleagues wanted was for language allowing for 64-ounce growlers to be legalized. While Cigar City Brewing's Joey Redner said that as one of the biggest craft brewers in the state, the legislation would hurt, but he'd be fine. But he said it was the "little guys" who will have to shut down.

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