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And as summer nears, the prospects for Jersey-brewed craft beer are growing sunnier: Some of the opposition to the legislation has softened or gone away.
Despite that, the path isn't completely clear for New Jersey's craft brewers.
State lawmakers on Thursday are expected to take up the measure, A-1277, that would enable the state's beer drinkers to buy their favorite brewpub beers at packaged goods stores and buy beer directly from production brewers for on- and off-premise consumption. The Assembly's Law and Public Safety Committee is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m.
Essentially, the legislation would put New Jersey on par with its neighbors Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania, where brewers enjoy a freer hand as far as dealing directly with consumers and operating brewpubs.
For example, those states allow brewpubs to also be production breweries and sell beer through distributors. Think Sly Fox and Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania and Dogfish Head in Delaware. Production breweries in those states can also sell their tour guests full pints of beer.
New Jersey, however, restricts brewpubs to selling their beer only at their locations, and limits brewpub owners to owning only two establishments. Production brewers are now limited to giving guests who tour their brewery small samples; the current rules also restrict production breweries to selling up to two six-packs or two growlers to the public. Additionally, brewpubs cannot hold production licenses, and production brewers cannot also own brewpubs.
That's why, backers of the legislation say, New Jersey's behind-the-times regulatory climate could continue to cost the state business, tax revenues and jobs: If the rules are friendlier across the Delaware and Hudson, why open up in the Garden State?
As it did successfully back in March, when the legislation was heard by a Senate committee, the Craft Brewers Guild issued an action alert, calling on craft beer enthusiasts to reach out to members of Assembly committee and urge them to vote in favor of the bill. (See the accompanying chart of the committee members. Note the email addresses are not clickable.)
“By Wednesday, June 6th, please contact members of the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee to let them know you support the legislation as a craft beer consumer and ask them to vote yes on the bill,” the guild's action alert says.
If the committee approves the measure, it would advance to the full Assembly. (The Assembly speaker would decide if and when to post the measure for a full vote. The same thing applies in the Senate; the Senate president decides on when a full vote would be held.) If the measure is approved by both houses of the Legislature, it would then go to Gov. Chris Christie for his consideration.
Christie has shown some support for craft beer and the state's craft brewing industry, issuing a proclamation last year to acknowledge American Craft Beer Week, and this year signing a bill that freed homebrewers from an obligation to get a permit to make beer in their backyard.
The guild's action alert doesn't come without some concerns.
The Senate version of the measure cleared that chamber's Law and Public committee with a unanimous vote on March 5, but not before a parade of opponents – lobbyists for alcoholic beverage retailers, restaurants and the state's beer wholesaler organization – appealed to the panel to vote it down.
The wholesaler organization has since been appeased by some craft brewer give-backs (i.e. no self-distribution for brewpubs) and is no longer standing in the way. Meanwhile the industry group that represents alcoholic beverage retailers in New Jersey has also softened its opposition, forgoing objections it made in March.
However, the state's restaurant association continues to oppose the legislation, specifically allowing production breweries to sell pints to people who stop by for tours. It's quite likely the restaurant group will renew its opposition before the Assembly committee. But it's unlikely the guild is going to give up that part of the legislation.
During the March 5 Senate committee hearing, opponents complained the measure would further what they call an erosion of the three-tier system, the regulatory system for alcoholic beverages that inserts a layer – i.e. wholesalers – between brewers (distillers and vintners, too) and consumers as a way to prevent producers from directly marketing to consumers and controlling markets.
Guild members pointed out that the three-tier system was designed to prevent large producers from muscling out smaller ones, thereby lessening competition.
In the decades since the 1933 demise of Prohibition – the three-tier system was born out of repeal of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution – the wholesale network has come to favor the big producers (think of the mega brewers) at the expense of smaller ones.
In the era of craft brewing, guild members say, that circumstance has translated into unfairly choking off small producers' access to markets.
Additionally, the guild argued that exceptions to the three-tier system have been made throughout the country as a way to restore some kind of a balance in the marketplace.
*Edits made to update original post.