Many Maine lawmakers talk about making the state more business friendly and eliminating unnecessary regulations. Ending the practice of requiring that some local breweries build separate rooms to sell their beer seemed like a chance to turn this rhetoric into action. Yet the Senate has rejected a bill that would end an unnecessary burden on Maine beer brewers, and the legislation faces an uncertain future.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, thought it would be an easy problem to fix. Small Maine breweries with tasting rooms can sell their beer in six-packs to their customers. But if the brewery has a liquor license in addition to a brewery license — which brewpubs do, so they can serve alcohol to restaurant customers — it cannot sell its beer to customers so they can take it home unless it has a separate room with a separate entrance. At least that’s how the state’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations interprets the law. The only exception is that brewpubs can sell growlers — large, refillable glass bottles — for customers to take home.
Saviello introduced LD 1462 to clarify the situation. The bill would allow craft breweries that run brewpubs to sell their beer to customers in six-packs without the need for a separate room and the additional personnel needed to staff it.
The problem arose from a 2012 law change that allowed brewers to have tasting rooms on their premises. Customers can taste a variety of beers made on-site in those tasting rooms and take home the brews they like.
Before there were tasting rooms, several Maine brewers opened restaurants so they could serve their beer on-site. These brewpubs have liquor licenses, allowing them to sell their own beer along with beers made by others and wine and other alcohol to drink on the premises.
The Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages requires that brewpubs strictly segregate areas where customers consume beer on-premises from where they sell it for off-premises consumption.
The distinction doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s simply an unnecessary burden for brewpubs.
The rules have united Democratic Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond of Portland and libertarian Republican Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn. Both represent districts with several brewpubs, and both referenced the “big hand of government” in stating their support for LD 1462.
“I know there is lots of rhetoric … about who is more business friendly, who wants less regulation. Well, folks, here’s an opportunity for us to all join together as one,” Alfond told the Sun Journal last week.
The Maine Beer and Wine Distributors Association offered the only testimony in opposition to the bill at a January public hearing before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. The opposing arguments involve safety and fairness.
As for safety, opponents argue it will encourage more people, especially young people, to drink. But beer already is easily available at grocery and convenience stores, generally for prices much lower than what craft breweries charge.
Opponents also argue it is unfair for a brewpub to be able to sell its beer to go when bars can’t do the same. Here’s an important distinction: Brewpubs make the beer they sell — on the premises in the local community. A bar may sell locally made beer, but also beer, wine and other alcohol made in far-flung states and countries.
A 2013 study found that 1,500 people worked for Maine’s breweries. The number of breweries has doubled since then. Brewers increasingly are buying grain and hops grown in Maine, and beer tourism is on the rise. Despite rapid growth in the industry, craft brewers still account for only 11 percent of the American beer market, according to the Brewers Association.
Craft brewing is a growing business in Maine. Making it a little easier for them to sell their products is a business-friendly step lawmakers can take without adverse consequences.