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Lawmakers Get a Taste of Beer Brouhaha

January 19, 2014 - 6:00pm

A measure to allow beer tastings by licensed beer distributors and retail stores remains on tap in the state Legislature, but it's not going to flow smoothly.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Thursday gave unanimous support to the bill (SB 470), but lawmakers, lobbyists and substance-abuse prevention advocates were quick to question the packaging of the proposal.

The intent of the bill's sponsor, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, is to allow stores such as Publix and Costco to hold tastings for specialty craft beers, as they are now allowed to do with wine.

"It makes no sense to me that you can have wine tasting at Publix but you can't have beer tasting, and craft beer seems to be a growth industry in Florida," Detert said.

But some lawmakers are concerned that the broadly written proposal -- the state currently allows wine and liquor tastings at premises that are authorized to sell such beverages -- would result in small convenience stores hosting public beer samplings that could turn into festive community events.

"I'm OK with the big box stores, but convenience stores I personally have a problem with," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

Meanwhile, Mitch Rubin, a lobbyist for the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, said that manufacturers should also be allowed to conduct the tastings.

Rubin, noting the bill proposes that only distributors or retailers could conduct the tastings, said that with more than 1,000 beer brands available in Florida there is great competition among larger brewers and the growing craft beer industry.

"Tastings are a very effective, costly but effective, way to get in front of the consumer," Rubin said.

Florida's three-tier regulation of alcohol requires that the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages be separated. With a few exceptions, retailers must buy their products from distributors who in turn buy their products from the manufacturers. Distributors are licensed to sell and distribute alcoholic beverages at wholesale to people who are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages at retail. Only licensed vendors are permitted to sell alcoholic beverages directly to consumers at retail.

Committee Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, noted that similarly interested parties are causing changes to a separate beer-related proposal (SB 406) by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. That measure was postponed from appearing before the committee on Thursday.

Latvala has proposed allowing the sale of half-gallon beer containers that are also known as growlers. A similar proposal failed to advance through the Legislature during the 2013 session.

"As you can see there are a lot of, not just two, sides on this issue, but probably four, five, 12 sides to all these issues," Stargel said. "We want to make sure we move in a very measured way."

Detert intends to consider changes to her proposal that would impose guidelines on the square-footage of the retailers hosting the tastings to eliminate small convenience stores and to impose a limit on the ounces that could be provided to those taking a sample taste. Otherwise, she said she's "willing to listen" to other proposals for her bill that is turning into "a beer food fight."

"I'm happy to hear all the lobbyists are writing an amendment to the bill," Detert said. "We'll see where we go from here. I think some of the concerns are legitimate and some are not."

The proposal did receive support -- with the acknowledgement that the legislation will undergo changes -- from MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch Cos., the Florida Brewers Guild and the Beer Industry of Florida.

"We want to be leery of creating some hypothetical sort of situation where we can't get this passed," said Eric Criss, representing the Beer Industry of Florida.

Susan Pitman, executive director of Drug Free Duval, expressed concern that there has been a "subtle" increase in the availability of alcohol in recent years, with craft and specialty brewers growing in popularity and providing products with a greater alcoholic content.

"Ten years ago you didn't go to a movie theater and have beer or wine or alcohol available, but now often you do. You can go to 5k runs now and there are often spirits available," Pitman said. "When beer and wine were initially authorized for sale in convenience stores and grocery stores it was absolutely to be limited to factory sealed containers."

Detert's proposal still has three scheduled stops before reaching the Senate floor: the Community Affairs; Appropriations; and Rules committees.

The House companion (HB 387) sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has yet to be scheduled for its first committee appearance.

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