Georgia beer bill wins Senate passage, but supporters want more

Debate on allowing customers to take home more beer from Georgia’s craft brewers came to a head Friday: The state Senate agreed with the idea. But no one’s celebrating just yet.

Direct sales would still be banned, and the original proposal has been substantially watered down in the legislative process.

Still, the passage of Senate Bill 63 in one chamber is the most success supporters have seen in their years-long effort to expand just how much beer someone could get directly from their local brewery. It also helped the measure beat a key deadline and remain alive in the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, which is scheduled to end April 2.

Supporters have had to swallow heavy concessions in the process, as they watched Senate leaders strip the bill as a compromise to win support in the chamber. And now they face another battle in the state House, where they will again try to expand what has been dubbed the “Beer Jobs Bill” by its sponsor, state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna.

Hill has said the state’s nearly 40 craft breweries — nearly double the number of just a few years ago — deserve a chance to make a little extra money to reinvest in their business and the local economy. All of Georgia’s bordering states — Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — allow craft brewers limited direct sales to consumers. Nationally, Georgia is one of four states that doesn’t. The others are Hawaii, Mississippi and West Virginia.

But changing Georgia’s Prohibition Era ban on in-house sales by local breweries has proved to be a tough sell.

“We are pleased that it passed the Senate but disappointed that some common-sense amendments didn’t make it into the bill,” said Nancy Palmer, the executive director of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild, who watched the 51-5 vote in the upstairs Senate viewing gallery. “Even with these minor changes, Georgia still sits well behind the rest of the country, and we hope that members of the Georgia House will have the courage to strengthen the ‘Beer Jobs Bill’ and do what is right for our state.”

Hill was more effusive, calling it “a win” for craft brewers. But he, too, played it safe during debate. The floor amendments supporters wanted would have expanded strict limits now in the bill but were withdrawn either by Hill’s request or at his urging.

SB 63 would allow 36 ounces of beer to be consumed “on-premise” of a brewery and up to 64 ounces of beer to be taken home. It would mandate, however, that the beer could only be purchased in a single container — a growler, say, or one 12-ounce bottle of beer.

It would continue to ban direct sales. Instead, SB 63 would allow breweries to charge for a tour and, depending on how much someone pays, the tour could include that container of beer as a free souvenir — up to the limits. Additionally, the state’s brew pubs would be able to sell a growler of beer to eat-in customers, who could then seal the bottle and take home what they didn’t drink.

Craft brewers hate the ban, but it’s supported by the state’s wholesalers who otherwise play a role in beer sales across the state.

Georgia currently uses a three-tier system to separate the beer brewer, the wholesaler or distributor who delivers the beer, and then the retail shop, restaurant or bar that sells the beer to customers.

The system came into play as Georgia and the nation emerged from Prohibition, and it aimed to prevent monopolies by national beer manufacturers — the rules, in essence, prevented them from doing it all: making the beer, selling it and delivering it themselves to anyone who wanted.

Wholesalers essentially play the role of middlemen in the state’s regulatory system, and they say the current system works well.

The original version of SB 63 would have explicitly allowed direct sales, with looser limits: 72 ounces of beer to drink “on-premise” and up to 144 ounces to take home. In layman’s terms, these were daily limits equivalent to 4 1/2 pints on tap and a 12-pack to go, respectively.

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