Today I am going to tell you a story about “Florida Growlers”. In 47 states of America it is legal to sell draught beer for consumption off the premises in various sizes. These range from a quarter gallon pot (approx 2 pints) to gallon containers (approx 8 pints). However the most popular size across the country is the Growler, a half gallon container. In Florida they are allowed to sell the quarter gallon and gallon sized servings but not the popular half gallon size.
Florida microbreweries started a campaign to make it legal in the state to sell beer in growlers. A simple change to existing legislation you may think. Not when big business flexes its financial muscle it isn’t! The legislation being used to introduce this size in law, known as SB1714, would cost some of the very same microbreweries their existence. Currently microbrewers can sell their beer direct at brewery taps and have guest beers on from other microbrewers, again sourced direct from their brewery. They can also sell cans and bottles of these same beers direct from the brewery.
There is a distribution model in Florida that effectively says for brewers over a certain size all sales in sealed containers (bottles and cans) must go through a middleman, unless sold within a brewpub. These wholesale distributors number 24 across Florida within the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association plus those belonging to the rival Beer Industry of Florida. The 3 tier model was enshrined in law following prohibition to protect customers in the chaotic years after beer was re-legalised. A reason which most of us can see is no longer valid.
These companies via their trade association, the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, have controlled beer distribution for decades in the state and can wield a lot of power through donations to state level politicians and when they see that a bypass to their distribution channels is being created, they can move quickly try and sabotage the deal. And the FBWA are certainly spreading the lobbying wealth about, paying 255 Florida political candidates up to $5000 over the last 8 years, totalling over $250,000, with the top supporters of the bills receiving up to 10 payments during this time.
Added into the legislation which legalises 4 pint growlers is a clause which would make it a legal requirement that all brewers who produce over 2000 kegs a year (or 206,000 pints) to distribute their bottles and cans through one of the state approved distributors. 206,000 pints may sound a lot, but all it takes is 15 bars to sell 40 pints a day to reach this figure, not a particularly hard challenge even today. Most brewers would not break even at this figure, with the Tampa Bay Brewing Co. quoting their break even point at 14,000 kegs.
But why would it be such a handicap to go through a distributor? Because in reality this means to stock their own beer in bottles and cans in their own brewpub, the qualifying breweries would have to send stock to the distributors, who would then add their mark up, at which price the brewpub would have to buy back the beer which is probably produced and packaged in the same building. Therefore there is no surprise there is major opposition to this legal bill as it stood from the microbrewers.
There is an alternative house bill (HB283) being proposed by supporters of craft brewing which would allow sales of growlers with no strings attached, but with less money influencing the politicians in this direction, the senate bill SB1714 with all the caveats is making better progress through the state political machinery. The Florida microbrewing scene is not insignificant with a rise from 6 to 80 brewers in the last 7 years, so would hurt a great many employees as well as the craft beer drinking community.
The interesting thing, for once it is not David vs Golliath. The more punative senate bill is backed by Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) distributors who don’t want the breweries to be able to directly sell beer from the brewhouse. MillerCoors distributors (who are members of the alternative Beer Industry of Florida trade body) oppose the senate bill and support legislation which allows half-gallon growlers without strings as per the house bill. The Florida Beer Wholesalers Association (FBWA) claims to distribute 1500 brands, but looking at the list many of these are out of state or national / international brands who need the FBWA network, including a lot of AB InBev brands.
What fits one group of companies is not always needed by another group, the simpler house bill does the job of legalising 4 pint growlers perfectly, the senate bill is simply “pay for policy” with both the politicians and the FBWA complicit. Makes you thankful for relatively simple world of the UK craft beer scene really doesn’t it!