Craft Brewers Legislation in Annapolis

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Last Friday, General Assembly committees considered dueling bills on “craft brewers.”  On one side was the Task Force empaneled by Comptroller Peter Franchot and his much ballyhooed “Reform The Tap” bill; the other was a proposal by Delegates Davis and Branch to repeal 2017 legislation on craft brewers which has been roundly criticized by Franchot as a knife in the back to the brewing industry despite the fact that it liberalized rules requested by the craft brewers.

The “Gospel” according to Franchot was detailed by Brian Griffiths, the editor-in-chief of Red Maryland in his post on February 10th entitled “Speaker Busch Declares War on Maryland Beer Industry.”  Red Maryland is a group which often peddles “alternative facts,” promotes Republican agenda items and demonizes Democrats, excepting Franchot who is politically aligned with Republican Governor Hogan whom Red Maryland wholeheartedly supports.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have more than a passing knowledge of the Maryland alcohol beverage industry.  From 1980 until my retirement in 2015, I was the lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association which represents the retail segment of the industry:  the bars, taverns, restaurants and package goods stores throughout Maryland, numbering over 7,000 licenses.  I know and have worked with everyone mentioned in Griffiths’ screed and have cordial relations with each of them:  Delegates Davis and Branch, Speaker Busch, Comptroller Franchot and his Chief of Staff, Len Foxwell. 

According to Red Maryland, the evil Democratic cabal, led by Busch, are seeking to destroy the craft brewers.  Busch ‒ before he was Speaker and just one of 3 Delegates representing Annapolis ‒ was the principal reason (along with now Senator Astle) that the Rams Head “microbrewery” came to exist on West Street in Annapolis just about 30 years ago.  It was the first “microbrewery” in Maryland and the law had to be changed to allow Rams Head to both brew and sell its beer at the same location.  Before that time, a company was only allowed to brew (think Coors) or deliver (think large beer truck delivering beer) or sell to the public (think Rams Head before it began its brewing operation or your local liquor store).  Thus, there were 3 tiers and one could not be on 2 tiers at once. 

Rams Head broke the 3 tier rule because Delegate Busch gathered the industry and said there had to be some flexibility shown.  Hence a bill was passed, Rams Head’s microbrewery opened, was a great success and, for all practical purposes, brought West Street back from the dead.  In other words, it was a Busch “cabal” (30 years ago) which was wonderful for the people he represented.

The Rams Head “microbrewery” legislation became a model for all subsequent expansion leading to the present craft brewing industry in Maryland.  Griffiths was probably in grade school when Busch brokered the Rams Head deal and Red Maryland did not exist and would not exist for another decade or two.  

The Rams Head story is one of many where elected representatives have effected changes in the 3 tier system including laws related to Maryland wineries as well as craft brewers so that Maryland is now home to hundreds of local craft brewers and local wineries.

But there is a sure way not to pass a bill and Comptroller Franchot, once a Delegate, knows that too.  Convene a Task Force with the entire industry present, tell a gullible segment (craft breweries) that they were “screwed” by last year’s bill in their favor, promise them the moon, excoriate the rest of the industry and the legislature and, then, with great fanfare hold a press conference and announce the result of the Task Force and its legislative proposals.  Of course, there was no vote of the Task Force and only certain members (craft brewers) were invited to the press conference.

Comptroller Franchot is one able politician.  He knows that his proposals will never be passed.  He also knows that he can demagogue this issue in his re-election campaign this year.  And Chief of Staff Foxwell is the “amen chorus” supporting his boss with a clever quote for Red Maryland saying that the Davis/Branch bill repealing last year’s bill is “a middle finger to the craft beer industry.”

In truth, that bill is a message to Franchot and Foxwell for the way they gave a middle finger to 99% of the industry while pulling the wool over the eyes of the remaining 1%.

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