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Calvert Recorder: Beer reform dealt a setback, but spirits are still up

Maryland State Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) hosted a happy hour at Mully’s Brewery in Prince Frederick on March 22 to talk about next steps in the movement to reform laws governing the manufacturing, distribution and sale of craft beer in Maryland.

The Reform on Tap Act of 2018, which was born out of recommendations from a 40-member task force of beer industry professionals and local brewers, was defeated by the House Economic Matters Committee last week. “Things in Annapolis often take time and the comptroller is not giving up on this effort,” said Comptroller’s Office Communications Director Joe Shapiro, in an interview with The Calvert Recorder. “The fight is not over.”

Thursday’s meeting was to update members of the Reform on Tap Task Force on the legislative setback and to encourage members to keep their spirits up, according to Shapiro.

Task force members met with Franchot eight times over the last year to share their perspective on manufacturing laws, contract brewing and the challenges they face with the goal of developing legislation to remove antiquated laws and burdensome regulations in the industry.

The proposed legislation, House bill 518, sought to allow smaller brewers to self-distribute; lift restrictions for take-home sales; remove all limits on beer production, taproom sales and take-home sales; and let local jurisdictions set guidelines for taproom operating hours and remove restrictions on contract brewing that inhibits start-up businesses. The act also proposed to eliminate franchise law requirements; to guarantee the issuance of Class B or D beer licenses to microbreweries upon request; and to repeal the “buy-back” provision that requires brewers to purchase their beer from distributors at a marked-up cost if they exceed the 2,000-barrel limit on taproom sales.

Despite the setback, Franchot encouraged meeting attendees to keep spreading the word on the need for more reform and to reach out to their local legislators in hopes they will answer the call to action.

Cindy Mullikin, who owns Mully’s Brewery with her husband, Jason, said the comptroller’s visit was a morale boost to say he’s still fighting for the industry.

Mullikin, who currently serves as president of the Brewers Association of Maryland, said the lobbying organization took key elements of the Reform on Tap Act of 2018 and introduced them as six separate pieces of legislation in both chambers to improve the chances of some craft brewing laws being passed this session.

The individual bills deal with franchise agreements, on-premise sales and consumption, and production and distribution limits.

With less than two weeks left in the session, the bills have made little to no forward movement in the House or Senate, but they are still alive, unlike the comptroller’s act.

Senate bill 956, the Maryland Beer and Brewery Promotion Program, has seen the greatest traction. It passed unanimously in the Senate on the third reading and is currently sitting in the House Economic Matters Committee. Two of the goals of establishing this program are to provide grants to nonprofit organizations and government agencies and to conduct other activities to promote Maryland beer.

Mullikin said she has learned so much about politics this session, to include that there is a lot of “noise” that the association is competing with to get the attention of the legislators and that the certainty of the remaining bills is unknown until session is over. Despite the outcome, she is optimistic and looks forward to working on the beer reform agenda after Sine Die.

“We have a firsthand accounts of what is going on,” Mullikin said, referring to other local brewers. “We are going to try to educate delegates and senators in the off season.”

Shapiro said there are no immediate plans for the task force to meet again. However, there are definite plans to re-introduce the Reform on Tap Act next session.

“There’s a long tradition in Annapolis of great ideas taking a long time to get through. We suspect this will be the same,” Shapiro said.

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