corruptissima re publica plurimae leges
“When the republic is at its most corrupt the laws are most numerous.” – Tacitus
It is January, 2015, and you know what that means! Yep, the battle begins anew. For anyone who is new to the Florida Beer War, I will give you a quick summary of 2014: it was a stalemate. The growing brewing industry in the Sunshine State attempted to get some of the laws regarding container sizes adjusted to put us more in line with other states by allowing 64 ounce growlers (you know, the standard size that every other state uses?), and to allow tastings in retail outlets similar to the way wine has been done for a long time. There was nothing hidden in the agenda, there was no change of anything else. The effort was met with a full-frontal assault on the brewing industry by distributor industry juggernaut, Florida Beer Wholesalers Association. The result was several counter-bills filed by bought-and-paid-for politicians (with zero understanding of the industry) that would have seriously impacted breweries abilities to do business and survive. Luckily, a tide rose against them, and these bills were shot down. There were some attempts at compromise, but it became clear that even though there was some movement within the industry, the politicians were entrenched, and resorted to patronizing comments about “mommy knows best” when it became clear they would not get their (and their donors’) way.
So much for less government intrusion, eh?
It was with cautious optimism that many people watched as notable brewery representatives sat down with their counterparts in the distribution tier to discuss what might be for 2015. Talk of “clean” growler legislation right off the bat had lots of people thinking we had finally won the day. Growler stations began popping up in retailers around the state, something no one thought they’d see. Even big retailers like ABC were getting on board! Could our message have been heard loud and clear and the other side have a change of heart?
To quote the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Life is pain, princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
Recognizing that there was no appetite for legislation restricting brewery activity even further than it already was, industry groups have colluded to take the fight away from the legislative side (and away from public forums) by filing a law suit against the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco for “incorrectly” enforcing existing law. Led by the Florida Independent Spirits Association, Inc. and the Florida Retail Federation, and backed by not only the now-infamous FBWH, but the Beer Industry of Florida (the other big distributor group) as well, the assault has begun anew, flush with many of the same claims about “protecting consumers” and “maintaining fairness” and “clarifying the laws”. Not surprisingly, few – if any – in the brewing industry see it that way. In fact, they feel very much under attack by a bigger and much-better funded bully.
I won’t try to sum up the lawsuit itself. I am not a lawyer, and frankly, the details of the suit are not the point for me. If you want an analysis of it, you should read Ross Appel’s explanation of what is going on. There has been a very vocal outcry in response to this lawsuit from across the spectrum. Breweries, consumers, retailers, and so on are all angry that, once again, powerful special interests are pushing actions that are going to hurt existing and prospective local breweries. (By the way, Eric Criss, the claim that “such clarification will not impact brewers who currently hold retail licenses; and furthermore, that it will protect the public by preserving Florida’s state-based alcohol regulatory system” is cynical and disingenuous at best!)
The Florida Brewers Guild is gearing up for a fight. This is a different battlefield than the legislature. You can’t win people over with facts and presentations and a line of supporters pleading your case, and public comment is limited to social media and the web… and your dollars. Legal battles are rarely cheap, so FBG is asking for your help through a crowdsourcing effort. If you can, check it out and donate whatever works for you. They need every bit of help they can get.
But something else has been bothering me for a while now. I have heard it mentioned once or twice in conversations I have had with friends and colleagues, but it didn’t start to gel until this past week. What if this isn’t about Florida breweries at all?
I’ll let you think about that for a moment.
It is easy for those of us active in the community to think we are legion in numbers. We see endless beer posts every day, see lots of people at our favorite places, and it seems like there is always news of another brewery opening up nearby. But the reality is, we are still very small in the larger world of adult beverages. Consumers of craft beer – as defined by the Brewers Association – still only make up single-digit percentages of the beer sold in the U.S. Yes, it is growing every year, but big beer is still making billions, if not trillions. Yes, they are losing shelf and tap space in some markets, but they are really doing just fine. And let’s look at who the driving forces behind this lawsuit are: corporate retailers and distributors.
What would happen if AB/InBev decided to return to Florida and build a new brewery? They certainly can afford to, and probably could make it as slick and inviting and fun as anyone. And let’s say they decided to open a tasting room as well. All kinds of AB products available, fresh on tap. Even some “limited release” stuff. And some bottle releases. And you know, since we’re here, lets through some cases of Bud and Michelob and Shock Top in the big fancy walk-in cooler as well. Since they are a tasting room, attached to a brewery, why not? And, as far as I know, there is no law that says their prices have to be higher than the retail stores like ABC or Publix. So now, you can swing into the taproom on your way to the frat-house and get fresh long-necks… for cheaper than the store.
Suddenly, ABI is now circumventing the second tier. And they are doing well, so they open another one. And another. And then use their considerable clout to push for a relaxation of distribution law. And the distributor is cut out of the equation entirely. I guarantee you, they are much more worried about losing sales of Bud Light than they are of any of the local breweries.
So, I may be playing at conjecture here, but it is an interesting idea.
In the meantime, we have work to do. While this is not currently a legislative issue, it might turn in to one. You can be sure that this fight will have numerous fronts, and we need to be ready to fight on all of them. That means educating our legislators and the public, it means letting the trade groups know how you feel about what is happening, and most importantly, it means supporting your local breweries and locally owned retailers. Know where your favorite places stand on the issue. If they don’t know, educate them.
But be nice.
Look at your local representative’s record on the issues last session, and see how they voted. If they were on the wrong side, let them know.
But be nice.
Post comments to the trade groups (apparently they are asking us too!) and tell them what you think.
But be nice.
Remember that ugly attacks simply do not work. In fact, they make us look like idiots. Use facts. Use stories. Try to refrain from profanity (I know it is hard sometimes). And go sign this petition. Every bit helps.
This is a fight that will go on a while, until Florida can scratch and claw its way towards the mindset that places like Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and Michigan have (in regards to beer, anyway).
It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and I will do my small part to try to keep the dialogue going and the information flowing.