COMMON SENSE PREVAILS

“[Massachusetts] commission officials will hold several regulatory hearings across the state focusing on how to develop common-sense regulations that will promote…and help create jobs in the state’s growing craft-brewing industry.”

-Steve Grossman, MA State Treasurer

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Common-sense regulations to promote craft beer? The audacity? What happened to the the tried-and-true method of developing labyrinthine, draconian laws to make life as difficult as possible for small craft breweries? Massachusetts, you’re not following the script!!!

Let’s back up a second. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission issued an advisory which struck fear in the hearts of many a small brewer in the Commonwealth. In a nutshell, the Commission was threatening to strictly enforce its Farmer-Brewer licenses in the state. That may sound a little confusing, so let’s break it down a bit…

In Massachusetts, a brewery can apply for either a standard Manufacturer’s license or a Farmer-Brewer’s license. The Manufacturer’s license does NOT require the brewer to produce any grains/hops on their own or contract domestically (ie: purchase grains/hops directly from an in-state farm). However, the freedom to purchase the raw materials from wherever you want comes with some tough restrictions. First, the license fees are significantly higher than those for a Farmer-Brewer. Second, holders of a Manufacturer’s license can NOT sell beer at retail or do tastings on site (in essence, they’re just a factory with no public storefront). Having a storefront/taproom is a crucial revenue stream AND source of marketing/PR for many, many small breweries. Finally, Manufacturer’s MUST use wholesalers to distribute their beer rather than having the option to self-distribute. At small volumes, the requirement to use a distributor can be a deathblow for a craft brewer.

Farmer-Brewers don’t face those restrictions, but they must show that they contribute to the Massachusetts agricultural industry by either growing the raw materials for their beer themselves or contracting directly with in-state farms. The issue is that the percentage of produce that must be grown or contracted by a Farmer-Brewer has always been a little vague and mostly unenforced. Many craft brewers took advantage of the seemingly lackadaisical enforcement of these rules and applied for Farmer-Brewer licenses since they give them the best chance to survive and thrive in the industry. After all, if there are two “tiers” of breweries in a state…one which allows small brewers to prosper and the other which places crippling restrictions on them…why not join the first tier? Particularly if it’s not even that well-enforced?

Well, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission decided to change the game and finally crack down on the Farmer-Brewer license-holders. Most importantly, they finally put a true definition on the requirements for the license by noting that holders must document that they grow (or contract in-state) at least 50% of the cereal grains and hops used in the manufacture of their wares. VERY few Farmer-Brewer license holders meet this requirement. And a number have pointed out that the state of Massachusetts does not currently produce enough barley and hops to even provide half of the needed raw materials to all of the existing Farmer-Brewers in the state. When the advisory was published, industry insiders quickly noted that enforcing this law would utterly decimate the burgeoning Massachusetts craft beer scene. Its announcement was a dark day for Bay State Aleheads.

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I’m proud of my home state for many reasons. It started the Abolitionist movement. It’s a beacon of higher learning and scientific inquiry. It was the first state to allow true marriage rights for same-sex couples. Massachusetts gets plenty of things wrong, but, in general, it tries to do the “right” thing when it comes to standing up for its citizens. I’m happy to say that they did the right thing this time around too.

OK, sure, comparing the support of craft beer to something like Abolition or marriage rights is ludicrous. We’re talking about something that only a tiny percentage of people care about…and the “right” to drink high-quality craft beer isn’t exactly up there with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But in this economy, every little bit of support helps. And craft beer is one of the few…the VERY few…industries that is actually growing in these troubled times. Why would you place any restrictions on one of the handful of sectors actually adding new jobs and tax dollars to your state? Massachusetts realized that their restrictions would hurt craft beer, and they decided to scrap it (some studies revealed that enforcing the new restrictions could have cost the state over 1,100 jobs). The news came out this morning that they realized the advisory was a “mistake” and that they will instead focus on developing regulations that will promote the industry and allow it to prosper. More encouraging words have rarely been spoken as far as Aleheads are concerned.

Some craft beer fans actually didn’t have an issue with the original advisory. Andy Crouch, The Beer Scribe, and Scott Smith of Pittsburgh’s East End Brewing (one of Slouch Sixpack’s local faves) both noted over Twitter that they had no problem with the new restrictions. After all, why should one segment of the craft brewing industry in Massachusetts be subject to different rules than another? I can understand this line of thinking, but I think Andy and Scott have it completely backwards. Yes, Manufacturer’s and Farmer-Brewers should not be treated differently. But rather than ADDING restrictions to Farmer-Brewers, they should be REMOVING restrictions from Manufacturer’s. I fully agree that breweries should be treated equally in the Bay State…but treat them equally by giving them all the same rights and freedoms…not by restricting the growth of one sub-set of the industry just to match the draconian rules imposed on another.

And while we’re not quite at a state of true equality and freedom for all Massachusetts breweries, the Commission clearly took a step in the right direction by ditching the advisory they had proposed a few weeks ago. As it stands, Farmer-Brewers can continue to thrive in Massachusetts. And if the words of state Treasurer Steve Grossman (who oversees the Commission) can be trusted, the new approach will be to look for common-sense approaches to promoting and growing craft beer in the state.

Common-sense when it comes to craft beer? Imagine that.

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10 comments

  1. Anonymous · ·

    Right on Mass. Send some of those guys down South to Bama to help us with “commom sense” laws in the craft industry. We have too many hidden agendas and conflicts of interest that even our grass roots movement group has lost their way.

  2. Good call. Massachusetts, we’ll trade you one Alvin Holmes for one Steve Grossman. I promise that Mr. Holmes will be the most endlessly quotable politician you’ll ever meet. He would have been SPECTACULAR during the gay marriage debate!

    “What’s wrong with the marriage we got? The marriage we got works pretty good, don’t it? I ain’t never heard nobody complainin’ ’bout the marriage we got? Who sponsored this bill? The Germans?”

  3. The amazing thing about this is how fast the action was taken- despite recent evidence to the contrary, even politicians can move fast if they hear a united voice. Congrats to Massachusetts brewers and the whole craft beer community, this is a huge win.

  4. Kid Carboy Jr. · ·

    In all honesty, I am very impressed by Grossman and co. revising their plan to incorporate the use of logic and common sense.

  5. The Beer Scribe fleshed out his argument today; basically saying that although everything turned out well, this whole matter might have been avoided through a proactive and coordinated effort by members of the state’s craft brewing community, rather than just waiting for the regulation to be enforced as it was written.

  6. I attempted to leave a comment on the page of the issued advisory, but it did not save.

    You guys in MA, need to find out what entity was behind this legislation and work to defeat every politician (of all parties) that is taking these “legislative packets” pre-prepared, bound and ready to be submitted to the state legislature, and actually being stupid enough to attempt to get them passed.

    Look at every legislation that came from those entities, see which politicians voted “for” it and work hard to remove those politicians (again all parties are tainted by Corpers).

    If you fail to do this, shine a very bright spotlight on the groups activities, they will not stop, they will just reintroduce it as another name, eventually, stealthily, behind closed doors, something will get passed that will put you out of business. They spend 10s of Millions of dollars, they work over the long haul (60 – 100 years already if you research it) and never forget.

    The people must not forget, or they condemn their children to a very bleak future where they work for the corporation, live in corporation housing and are paid less than the amount needed to purchase their products from the company store…slaves forever. Its happened before and America has never been closer to being back there then it is today.

    Its been a well thought out, planned and coordinated agenda, do not be deluded, stay awake and stay aware or fail.

  7. In a similar circumstance, I was proud of Oregon’s legislature when they promptly fixed the homebrewing ‘redefinition’ put forth by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (which effectively disallowed homebrews from being consumed outside the home where they were brewed, killing homebrew club tasting sessions and the state’s long-running county/state fair homebrew competition).

    It’s nice to know that common sense isn’t anathema to at least our state legislatures. I suppose it does help when the public hollers at them in a unified voice what that common sense approach should be though.

  8. I think that’s the issue, Beerford. Having a unified (and more importantly, LARGE) group of craft beer supporters will get the attention of the legislatures. The problem, of course, is building up that base of supporters. I see that problem in Alabama right now where craft beer fans are zealots, but their numbers are still too small to have critical mass. Each year, it seems like their numbers are growing and the state is forced to listen a little more. Hopefully, we’ll get to a point like OR and MA where we simply can’t be ignored.

    And “lamapper”, your ideas are intriguing to me and I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  9. The Captain · ·

    What’s troubling is that this change was suggested at all… Clearly some wine-drinker or non-drinker simply has no idea about the state in which they live. In reasonable places like Massachusetts, they reverse course quickly. Unfortunately, the true is not same everywhere.

  10. […] the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC).  A few months ago, we wrote about the sane conclusion to an insane firestorm begun when the ABCC tried to curtail access to the low-maintenance Farmer […]

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