Beer Issue - 2015 Georgia beer legislative recap

The deal with that whole Beer Jobs Bill thing

On July 1, the mangled piece of legislation formerly known as the Beer Jobs Bill became law. But what does that mean? And how did we get here? Let's walk through what happened, why it happened, and what it all means for the Georgia beer drinker.

Georgia is one of the few states in the country that doesn't allow its breweries to sell beer directly to customers. Before July 1, they could give away some of it for free and sell a pint glass as well as other things that aren't beer, like T-shirts, koozies, and beer-branded golf clubs, but the only entity to which they could legally sell beer was their distributor. In late January, Senate Bill 63 was introduced. It eventually became known as the Beer Jobs Bill because its intended purpose — allowing breweries to sell a limited amount of beer directly to customers — would create jobs and new breweries, supporters argued. Authored by State Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna, with support and encouragement from the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, SB 63 sought to allow breweries to sell up to the equivalent of a six-pack in draft form to brewery visitors and for both breweries and brewpubs to be able to sell up to the equivalent of a 12-pack (or two growlers) of beer to consumers for drinking off-site.

Georgia's relationship with beer sales is complicated because of the three-tier distribution system that puts buying and selling power in the hands of the middlemen. The Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association, a lobbyist group representing the state's distributors, worked to undermine SB 63 and maintain the status quo. Dropped on Jan. 29, the bill had until Crossover Day, March 13, to make it through both chambers and multiple committees.

More than 75 members of the Georgia beer industry packed out Room 310 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Downtown on a chilly Feb. 18 evening to argue for and against SB 63. Georgia brewers presented statistical analysis from the national Brewers Association showing how progressive beer legislation has positively affected the economies of neighboring states.

Wholesalers contended that direct sales would harm retailers as well as the state's distribution industry. Numerous beer-centric Georgia retailers including Hop City, the Porter Beer Bar, Ale Yeah!, Brick Store Pub, and Argosy already had publicly declared support for direct sales.

In late February, sources at the Capitol told Creative Loafing that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was exerting behind-the-scenes influence to slow the bill's progress. Cagle received more than $130,000 in campaign contributions from wholesalers (GBWA, Georgia Crown, Savannah, Eagle Rock, General Wholesale, and Atlanta Beverage, to name a few) in 2014 alone. With time running out in the legislative session, the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild and local consumer beer advocates spurred a grassroots campaign that resulted in phone calls, emails, social media messages, and blog posts directed at Georgia politicians, asking them to let the legislators vote.

Under public pressure, Cagle acquiesced. SB 63 was decimated by amendments as it made its way through the Senate. When the bill finally passed through the chamber, the right to sell had been replaced with the ability to give away "souvenir" beer that tour attendees could take home. Strangely, 4 ounces were added to the amount consumers could drink on premise while touring, bringing that total up to 36 ounces. In other words, what was originally a bill allowing direct sales had been reduced to a bill that expands the amount of "free beer" given away during brewery tours, albeit in a way that allowed breweries to charge slightly more depending on the tour.

People wondered if the bill was even worth passing at that point. Brewpubs were removed from the language altogether — and, oddly, distilleries were added in — as the bill made its way through the House.

On May 5, Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill into law, and in late May, the Department of Revenue laid out its regulations regarding the new tour structure. So what does it all mean for you, the Georgia beer lover? Well, you still can't buy beer from a brewery. You can walk into one, and you can drink 36 ounces of beer while you're there getting a tour. And, depending on what kind of tour you pay for, you can take up to 72 ounces of "souvenir" beer home with you.

At press time, breweries were still deciding how they're gonna do this part. Burnt Hickory is holding a celebratory midnight tour. BlueTarp is considering crowlers — essentially oversized aluminum cans that act like growlers. Wild Heaven has come up with a ticket system — different tickets for different tours that get you different amounts of beer. Orpheus is considering sending attendees home with mixed six packs of cans. Many breweries, it sounds like, will offer three 20-ounce bomber bottles as your "souvenir."

Just know that, despite the fact that you're giving them money and they're giving you beer, they're definitely not selling it to you. The language of the law says precisely that. Breweries cannot sell beer. Not in Georgia.

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