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Tim Bissell Tim Bissell
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Three Pint Stance – First, they came for New Jersey…

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An interesting headline came across my screen this morning when I was perusing the latest in beer news online. It seems that in the ever-simmering battle between the interests of small, independent craft breweries and the big powerful multinational big breweries, the big boys can claim a regulatory victory in the state of New Jersey.

Recently, the State of New Jersey’s Division of Alcohol Beverage Control passed a “Special Ruling” further clarifying and codifying what a “Limited Brewery” or small brewery, can do in their tasting rooms in terms of special events.

The Special Ruling is available here: https://www.nj.gov/oag/abc/downloads/Special-Ruling-Authorizing-Certain-Activities-by-Holders-of-Limi.pdf

If you are into reading legal stuff, I say go ahead and read it. If that sort of thing bores you, I’ll try my best to sum up the key points.

Basically, this special ruling is an effort to further draw the line a tasting room and a traditional bar by limiting the types and frequency of events a tasting room can hold. Under the guidelines set forth in the Special Ruling, breweries can only hold 25 special events a year and must apply to the state for a permit to hold that event at least 10 days prior.

While this doesn’t immediately sound like a burdensome requirement, a look at the list of what constitutes a “special event” may change your mind. Here is that list:

  1.     Trivia/Quizzo
  2.     Paint and Sip/Craft Making;
  3.      Live Music/Open Mic;
  4.     Live-televised sporting events (e.g., World Cup, Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, World Series Game, or similar types of live-streamed sporting events);
  5.     Educational Events and Seminars;
  6.      Movie or Theatrical Events;
  7.     Animal adoption events! to the extent permitted by local ordinance; and
  8.     Yoga, or other similar types of classes

So if you want to hold any sort of event, even simply turning on the TV and showing a football game, you have to ask the state’s permission and you can only do it 25 times in a calendar year. Holding a weekly open mic? Better make that bi-weekly and stop all other events. Want to host an educational seminar about rocks at your geology themes brewery? Not if you have had 25 events already, damn the educational aspects of your event!

In my (heavily biased) view as an owner/operator of a small brewery in Maine), this is a thinly-veiled attempt to punish tasting rooms for their success in becoming the sort of community hub where people gather to not only drink quality, locally made beers but to have some fun and unwind from the stresses of life, maybe by listening to some live music, or attending a paint and sip night, or simply showing up for board game night. These events help foster a feeling of community at a brewery tasting room, and instead of seeing this as a positive thing, the State of New Jersey has decided this is a problem that needs fixing.

According to the State of New Jersey, it is unfair - to the Budweisers, Millers and Coors of the world and the Applebee’s, Chilis, etc. - that these breweries are finding success in drawing customers away from those products and locations. Instead of letting this sort itself out and perhaps provide some balance in this market that has been driven by behemoths for years, the state, no doubt through consistent prodding and lobbying from groups representing the big breweries and restaurants, has decided to step in and say who gets to win and who gets to lose.

So, why should you, craft beer drinker in Maine, care about what goes on in New Jersey? I can tell you for a fact that similar battles are being waged in state legislatures around the country and even here in the Pint Tree State. You should care about this because the great tasting room culture that has grown up around Maine’s small breweries cannot exist in an unfriendly regulatory climate.

Tasting rooms are an integral part just about every small brewery’s business plan in that they provide a direct retail outlet for their product, which is a great way to make much-needed operating capital without having to sell beer to a distributor at a deep discount. Tasting room pours provide not only a refreshing treat for visitors of the brewery, they also offer a high profit margin for the tasting room operator. Surely this new outlet for customers to purchase and consume alcohol “on-premise” gives customers more options and can be detrimental to bar and restaurant traffic, but is that really an area where the state should be stepping in and regulating? Shouldn’t the consumer be able to vote with their wallets, as they have been?

So what can we do in the meantime? Continue to support our local breweries and pay particular attention to your local Brewer’s Guild to see what legislative work the small breweries are doing to combat this never ending pushback from the big beer and restaurant conglomerates. Stay thirsty - and stay vigilant!

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