Although there may be solid arguments in favor of Florida's three-tier system of distributing beer, you don't have to be a craft beer aficionado to be suspicious about the way the Florida Beer Wholesalers are making their case in Tallahassee this legislative session.
In their now four-year battle over craft brewers' desire to join virtually the rest of the country in being able to sell 64-ounce growlers of beer, the Florida Beer Wholesalers have made a host of demands in negotiations with state lawmakers, some of them quite egregious. The latest proposal is being met with unanimous disapproval by Tampa Bay area craft brewers, several of whom made a 400-mile round trip on Monday to oppose the bill sponsored by Lakeland GOP state Senator Kelli Stargel.
Her bill would require craft breweries selling more than 2,000 kegs per year of their own brew to distribute their bottled and canned products through an established distributorship. Then they would have to buy back their own product — at marked-up prices — before they could sell it to consumers for home consumption
So when Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe brought up the idea of having his colleagues pen a letter to the local Hillsborough delegation to oppose the Stargel bill because it would hurt Cigar City Brewing and others, you'd think it'd be a pro-forma situation.
You'd be wrong.
“It’s not our issue,” said Commissioner Sandy Murman. “It’s not our fight.”
Commissioner Victor Crist, like Murman a former state legislator, said, “Having worked on these issues before, I know there are many different sides to this. In order to get accomplished what you want to see done, there are many different components of this that need to be addressed.”
Elizabeth Belcher, a Democrat running against Crist this fall in District 2, sent a short statement to CL after reading Mike Salinaro's report on the discussion in the Tampa Tribune.
"Wait a minute!! Isn’t small, startup, businesses what the county wants to encourage? Start small and build big, it will bring good jobs to the area. So why aren’t the County Commissioners supporting craft brewing companies?" she asks. "In other words, big business doesn’t want competition. Is “different components” code for big dollar donations?"
Much has been made of the comment that Senate President Don Gaetz made to the Associated Press regarding his relationship with Anheuser-Busch InBev distributor Lewis Bear. "I'm with the beer distributors in my district," Gaetz said earlier this year. "That's a very important issue because one of my very best friends is an Anheuser-Busch distributor and he never talks to me about his business. It's always about what are we going to do for disabled children, what are we going to do for the arts, what are we going to do for economic development. But this time he's talking about growlers ."
Two of the biggest supporters in Tallahassee of local craft breweries are Clearwater state Senator Jack Latvala and Tampa Representative Dana Young, both Republicans. An earlier version of Stargel's bill that would have allowed the distributors to take a cut from the craft brewers' product prompted this much-quoted Latvala quip: "If they’re going to have to pay this tariff, if they’re going to have to pay this sort of protection to Vinny, they at least should have to pick up the goods." On Monday he said Stargel's bill is "doing the exact opposite of creating jobs."