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Local breweries celebrate state’s new alcohol-selling bill

  • Members of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild board of directors, Nancy Palmer, Chris Heron, Joel Iverson, Carly Wiggins and Bob Sandage celebrate after the signing of Senate Bill 85 at the state capital earlier this month. The bill will update the regulations surrounding Georgia breweries and distilleries, putting them on par with other states across the country. (Photo special to the Savannah Morning News)
  • Eric Burnett pours out a beer sample during a tour at Southbound Brewing Company in Savannah in 2015. Brewers are celebrating this week after Governor Nathan Deal signed a law that will put Georgia breweries and distilleries on par with other states across the country. (Photo special to the Savannah Morning News)
Local breweries are raising a glass after Gov. Nathan Deal signed Senate Bill 85 into law last weekMay 8 allowing breweries and distilleries to sell directly to consumers. 
 
Under the new law, breweries can sell up to 3,000 barrels of beer per year and distilleries can sell up to 500 barrels. The new regulations will take effect Sept. 1. 
 
“We are thrilled to have successfully passed SB85. It has taken many years of hard work from the Georgia beer community. Having the signing with our distributing partners, lobbyists, representatives, fellow manufacturers, and the Governor was really a historic moment for us,” said Carly Wiggins, the marketing and sales director of Savannah’s Southbound Brewing Co. and current president and membership chair of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild. 
 
“A few years ago, you would never have imagined everyone would be in the same room smiling when ink was finally put to paper. It’s wonderful that everyone understands the importance of this law change and the positive impact it’s going to have on every aspect of the Georgia craft industry.” 
 
The beer battle in Georgia has long been brewing. In July 2015 brewery workers celebrated the passing of a bill, which loosened requirements and allowed customers to take home beer as long as they’d taken a tour of the facility. Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived after the Department of Revenue quietly released a bulletin about two months later, which tightened the regulations stating that the volume of alcohol couldn’t dictate the price of the tour, so the price of the tour had to be the same regardless of whether a patron wanted a to-go souvenir. 
 
In January 2016, the DOR and industry reps hit somewhat of a compromise, once again allowing breweries to start offering tours at variable prices based on what type of beer is offered. Since then Wiggins and other dedicated Guild members and other industry workers across the state have been working to change the regulations. 
 
“Myself and several other board members were able to negotiate with our previous opposition to find a middle ground that was agreeable to everyone. Coming to the table with an agreement was key in getting this passed,” she said, adding that guild Executive Director Nancy Palmer, along with a new lobbying firm, helped move the bill along, too. 
 
“Of course all the calls, emails, and visits from our consumers was a huge help showing the support behind SB85,” Wiggins said. 
 
Study breakdown 
 
According to a recent study by the Brewers Association, breweries with tasting rooms see significantly more growth overall than breweries without. Breweries with tasting rooms that produced between 1,500 and 4,999 barrels in 2016 had a 33.7 percent year over year growth increase compared to 18.8 percent growth of the breweries that didn’t have a tasting room, the study states. 
 
“It takes millions of dollars to open a production facility. Without being able to have a tasting room bring in additional income you are digging yourself out of a financial hole for years. Breweries opening in the surrounding states are 2.5 times more profitable than ones in Georgia,” she said. 
 
Initial changes at Southbound will include extending hours, shifting staffing positions around, hiring additional people and promoting from within to managerial roles. 
 
“If it works the way we believe, we will be able to open for additional days. Eventually, we will be able to fund a true tasting room from the taproom sales over time. This is something that may not have happened for years without this law passing,” Wiggins said. 
 
One big challenge will be educating staff and consumers, Wiggins said, adding that the guild has started offering educational seminars on operating tasting rooms. 
 
“Now we can finally operate like the other 49 states! I’m sure there will be a learning curve for all of us,” she said. 
 
Staying competitive 
 
Chris Sywassink, owner and general manager of Ghost Coast Distillery, which opened on Indian Street in February, said the new regulations will help provide additional revenue, allowing them to reinvest in their building, brand and hire new employees. 
 
“This is a boon not only for us, but for the other small businesses throughout the state,” he said. 
 
“Quite simply, this allows us to have an additional source of revenue in a highly competitive industry. It will allow us to reinvest so we can focus on growth and to stay competitive with distillers in other states.” 
 
Ghost Coast vodka is now sold in more than 200 bars, restaurants and other retail locations around southeast Georgia, and the company is focusing on expanding throughout the state later this year. 
 
“We have been able to open our doors for locals and visitors, who have thoroughly enjoyed the tour and tasting and we’re looking forward to more people coming to see us as we continue to get the word out about Ghost Coast Distillery,” he said. 
 
Since the new law doesn’t take effect for a few months, breweries and distilleries are still in a bit of waiting game to see how the Department of Revenue interprets the new regulations, but Sywassink is hopeful for the future. 
 
“…We have begun internal discussions about how to take advantage of the new law. It’s too early to announce anything at this point, but you can certainly expect exciting things from the entire Ghost Coast crew, after the new law goes into effect,” he said. 
 
Preparation time 
 
Martin Smith, executive director of the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association said that having a few months before the laws go into effect allows the DOR and brewers to be ready to implement the changes without any surprises. 
 
“(The DOR) was equally involved in helping draft the new law and remained engaged throughout the process,” Smith said. 
 
“In addition, Rep. Howard Maxwell (R-Dallas), chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee, and Sen. Rick Jeffares (R-McDonough), chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, requested and obtained the department’s input.” 
 
Like Wiggins and Sywassink, Smith shares the excitement of the new regulations and their positive impact on the state’s industry. 
 
“We’re excited. The association worked with our partners — the brewers and retailers — to ensure the industry continues to flourish,” he said. 
 
“In addition, we appreciate Gov. Deal signing the bill and his continued efforts to keep Georgia as the top state in which to do business.” 

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