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Craft Brewers Slam Proposed Rule Making Them Sell, Buy Back Their Beer

Gabe Grass
Jessica Palombo

Florida’s craft beer brewers have been pushing for years to remove a law keeping them from selling containers of a certain size. But a Senate bill that does away with that restriction also adds a different rule brewers say would hurt their booming business.

Following a national trend, the number of craft breweries in Tallahassee is expected to double in the near future. In a warehouse six blocks from the Florida Capitol, Gabe Grass is about to open the third microbrewery within a mile radius.

“I got started in 2008. It’s almost the same as every other craft brewery that’s out there. They all start as home brewing, caught the itch,” he says.

He says the buzz is building around his GrassLands Brewing Company.

“I have a buddy of mine who said, ‘For somebody who doesn’t have a tangible product for sale, you’re the most popular person that I know,’” he says, “because I’ve had a website that I’ve posted on consistently every Friday for the past two years. I’ve sent out a newsletter to over 500 people across 16 states.”

Grass is walking through the giant empty warehouse at 603 W. Gaines St. that he’ll begin transforming this month.

“We’re standing in probably where we’ll be fermenting our beer,” he says, “So we’ll have tanks here and here all along, and then our brewing system, milling room, keg storage, grain storage, all that fun stuff.”

Grain will enter the building and leave as beer—but exactly how that beer is allowed to leave and how much it could cost brewers like Grass could depend on what happens in the 22-story building down the street.  

For years, small brewers have been seeking the ability to sell 64-ounce bottles called growlers. The current prohibition causes some head scratching because brewers can legally sell both smaller and larger containers. And a few pending bills grant them the additional bottle size option.

But one measure moving in the Senate also creates a new rule that Sen. Jack Latvala (R- Clearwater) describes this way:  “You require them to sell their product to the distributor and then the distributor gets to mark it up to the degree that they want to mark it up, and then they have to buy their own product back, and it never leaves the floor of their facility.”

Latvala was the only senator voting no on that bill in last week’s Community Affairs Committee. The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland), told the panel that requiring craft brewers to sell to distributers and buy their beer back makes them play by the same rules as bars and restaurants that must buy the beer they serve.  

“It wouldn’t be fair to those vendors, who are also a lot of times small businesses, to be in straight-up competition with a brewer-vendor, who can then sell basically wholesale beer,” she said.

But Grass says none of the restaurant owners he’s talked to would want obstacles put in his way.

“They’re excited that there’s another brewery that they get to put on their tap lines,” he says. “They’re not necessarily competing with us. We’re working on—it’s like ‘collab-etition.’”

The Senate bill has one more committee stop before it reaches the floor. Meanwhile other bills removing the growler size prohibition—without requiring brewers to sell to distributors—are stalled in committees.