Beer Town: The grand illusion of beer-to-go

While it wasn’t everything the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild wanted, the rather convoluted version of Senate Bill 63 that finally passed during the 2015 legislative session, and was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, was widely considered a step in the right direction.

Among the most important new provisions that took effect on July 1, breweries could charge for tours, which could include up to 36 ounces of beer (up from 32 ounces) to consume during tastings and up to 72 ounces (equal to a six-pack) of free beer to take home as “souvenirs.”

But a funny happened last week. Nearly three months after the new law became part of the fabric of tours and tastings, the Georgia Department of Revenue decided to change the rules, greatly restricting the way so-called souvenirs could be offered. And in response, many Georgia breweries made the the decision to suspend beer-to-go tours.

In essence, it seems that all the stories about happy brewers finding creative ways to promote their products with new packaging like crowlers and growlers and exciting new events like bottle release parties have suddenly become a figment of our collective imagination.

It’s the Department of Revenue’s job to issue rules and regulations and enforce laws governing “facility tours” under Senate Bill 63. But with its new “policy bulletin,” it pulls a Wizard of Oz, saying to Georgia breweries,“pay no attention to the rules we promulgated back in June, these are the rules now.”

The reaction of brewers I spoke to about the bulletin ranged from outrage to disbelief to deep depression, especially over the fact that the Department of Revenue has refused to meet with them.

Now, Joel Iverson, one of the founders of Atlanta’s Monday Night Brewing and the president of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, is requesting a meeting with Gov. Deal.

“I’m now in the awkward position as the president of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild of having breweries concerned for their livelihood.” Iverson said. “After the law and subsequent regulations our member breweries hired people, invested in their facilities, and made business decisions based on the written regulations and written assurances from the Department. Now three months later these are being re-interpreted.”

Brian Purcell, the founder and CEO of Three Taverns Craft Brewery summed up the frustrations of his fellow Georgia brewers.

“While Senate Bill 63 did not offer all we hoped for as brewers, it did give us the opportunity to offer variable prices for brewery tours that included varying volumes of souvenir beer to go,” Purcell said. “To suddenly, without notice or without opportunity for discussion or comment, have the DOR issue a new bulletin three months later that completely changes the consensus understanding and the intent of the law, is troubling and will now create challenges to our business.

“Sadly, as a result of this new bulletin issued by the DOR, Three Taverns has no choice but to suspend our brewery tours that offered free souvenir beer to go. It was fun while it lasted.”

As a beer drinker, I really wish these kinds of bureacratic rules and regulations were not such an issue in the state of Georgia. In almost every other state in the nation, including every state bordering Georgia, it’s legal to buy beer at a brewery.

Right now, Georgia ranks 41 out of 50 states in breweries per capita. That’s a lot of potential for economic growth during a time when craft beer is booming. So the big question is, who’s going to do the math? The Guild or the government?

For more in-depth coverage of the issue, see Aaron Gould Sheinin's AJC story, Georgia brewers hopping mad after state changes new tour rules .