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Recent compromise still poses tight regulations for state's breweries

Subheadline: 
Ga. beer battle continues

  • Eric Burnett pours out a beer sample during a tour at Southbound Brewing Company in July. (Savannah Morning News file photo)

The ongoing battle between Georgia breweries and the Georgia Department of Revenue seemingly came to a compromise in late January when lawmakers announced a deal had been reached on the regulations surrounding State Bill 63, better known as the Beer Jobs Bill.

The agreement allows breweries to again start offering tours at variable prices based on what type of beer is offered, something that originally began in July when the bill first went into effect but was later taken away in September when the revenue department released a bulletin reinterpreting the laws.

Carly Wiggins, marketing director and co-founder of Savannah’s Southbound Brewing Co., said the bill — signed in April and put into effect July 1 — was a stripped down version of what the brewery industry had hoped for. Still, they were happy they were no longer required to give away free samples of their products, which the law previously dictated.

“The (April) bill was completely re-written on the floor and turned into the convoluted mess that got us into this situation in the first place. Brew pubs were stripped from the bill and direct sales were taken off the table,” she said.

The solution that went into effect July 1 allowed breweries to sell tours and categorize beer as a souvenir. Breweries could have variable tour pricing and customers could have up to 36 ounces of a “souvenir”on site and then take up to 72 ounces to go, but that was all reinterpreted in September.

Wiggins said the September news of the tightened regulations was devastating. They stated that the volume of alcohol couldn’t dictate the price of the tour — meaning the price of the tour had to be the same regardless of whether a patron wanted a to-go souvenir.

“All of that time and money each brewery put in just to have it taken away. We begged for help and were given none. We tried for months without being able to have anything done,” Wiggins said of the September changes.

“Legislators were outraged because it wasn’t their intent, but that’s what happens when you have to twist the language to make the legislation more palatable to those opposing it.”

So Wiggins and other Georgia brewery representatives worked with the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild to draft a bill designed to shed light on the issues small breweries are facing and had hoped to introduce it to lawmakers in January.

“The only true way to ensure that we would be able to move forward with a sound understanding of intent would be to have it clarified in legislation. Specific rules and regulations with no more gray area,” she said.

But the opportunity to introduce the bill never arose as the newly reached deal came just before the guild’s bill was to be released, which was met with Wiggins’ skepticism.

“If the (revenue department) can make interpretations and change them at will, then who was to say they wouldn’t change them again?” she said.

The deal was a take-it or leave-it situation, according to Wiggins. Currently Mississippi and Georgia are the only two states in which breweries are not allowed to sell their product directly to a consumer, so opening a brewery here can be a huge gamble, she said.

“We were strongly advised that this was the deal, the only deal. That any legislation we put into play would never even make it to the floor for a vote because of our opposition. Not only that, but if we didn’t accept this compromise we could guarantee that we’d be burning bridges with the leaders that put the deal together and therefore nothing would be passed for many years to come,” she said.

Wiggins said she hopes the regulations can come back before lawmakers next year for clarification, but in the meantime, it’s too risky to start making any big staffing or equipment changes at Southbound.

“I admit, for those who don’t know much about what is going on it may seem that I’m being ungrateful. You have to understand that in no way shape or form does the (revenue department) even have to move forward with this agreement. There is no set time line. We have no idea if or when it will be implemented and the brew pubs in the state remain left off the docket again. Even if it does get implemented, who is to say they won’t flip flop again?” she said.

“We simply can’t afford to continue to make changes that could potentially be taken away from us at a whim. If this is implemented, we will re-evaluate at that time. I believe many of the other small breweries in the state will do the same.”

The recent decision also allows breweries, distilleries and wholesalers to use social media to advertise events, to explain where their products can be purchased and to describe the food to be sold at breweries and distilleries, something Wiggins said is simply freedom of speech.

“I’ve recently discovered that I would make an absolutely terrible politician. Apparently, I have more of an activist mind-set, but am I really an activist because I believe we should have the same abilities our competitors do? That we just want a fair chance in the market to compete as our neighbors do? Honestly, that we just want to be able to keep the lights on?” 

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