(The Center Square) — A Georgia Senate committee did not advance legislation that could have transformed the state’s craft brewing scene.
Senate Bill 163 would have allowed “small brewers” to distribute up to 3,000 cases per year to retailers within a 100-mile radius without contracting with a distributor. It would also allow brewers and brewpubs to donate products for charitable events.
The committee did not advance the legislation by Wednesday’s deadline for bills to be out of committee, effectively killing it this year unless lawmakers add its provisions to another measure. A similar measure, House Bill 407, was introduced in the state House.
“These brewers are not asking for a tax credit; they’re not asking for a handout,” state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said during a Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee hearing. “They want to pay their taxes, and they’ll pay more taxes by selling more product. They just want a free market, some competition to be able to sell [their] product from their brewery.”
Hufstetler pointed to neighboring North Carolina, saying the Tar Heel State allows brewers to sell a higher volume directly to consumers.
“I think it’s very important to make it clear: There’s not an opposing side to this,” Martin Smith, executive director of the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association, told lawmakers. “The brewers of all sizes in Georgia and the distributors in Georgia are strategic partners, and that’s not just by saying we support their products or we have to work with them or anything like that.”
Smith said Georgia law requires brewers to assign their products to a distributor, but brewers decide the counties where to distribute it.
“The second part that takes place between this partnership is [an] unsecured financial investment, that the only way to have a return on it is by that product being sold and making money,” Smith said. “Our guys invest directly with these brewer partners that they have.”
Nathan Cowan, CEO of Eventide Brewing in Atlanta’s Grant Park, said direct sales would allow brewers to ensure they remain profitable.
“The real problem with craft beer in Georgia is … we have such a barrier to entry,” Cowan told lawmakers. “It’s a difficult state to develop a product in and to vet whether or not that product’s viable for the market, for distribution.
“…All this bill is saying is allow small breweries to have [a] better opportunity to make that bottom dollar so that they can be solvent as a company, they can invest that money back in their community, they can invest it in their operation for making better quality beer, they can invest it in their salaries for their employees — just essentially allow for them to be a more viable company,” Cowan added.
Hufstetler said he would be open to amending the 100-mile radius and that such legislation would not stifle the industry.
“You’ll hear that the world is going to end if we do this,” Hufstetler said. “North Carolina is doing it at a much bigger rate, and the world hasn’t ended, and the beer business has thrived. …And this industry [in Georgia] needs to be able to grow just like they can do in that state.”
By T.A. DeFeo | The Center Square contributor