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The Baltimore Business Journal: Maryland brewery debate heads back to the General Assembly

It’s almost time for another round of brewery debate.

When the Maryland General Assembly returns to the State House next week, legislators will be taking another look at measures aimed at alcohol regulation and the state’s $638 million craft brewing industry — one of the 2018 session’s most contentious topics.

Passions ran high over the issue last year, with stakeholders from each branch of Maryland’s three-tiered system (manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers) turning out for an hours-long hearing in February. Ultimately, a host of brewery reform bills backed by Comptroller Peter Franchot failed to make it out of a House committee.

In the new year, Franchot plans to push once again to loosen restrictions on Maryland breweries, whose owners argue they need more leeway to compete with neighboring states. Franchot’s Reform on Tap Act, introduced last session, would have expanded taproom hours and allowed breweries to sell unlimited amounts of their own beer for on-site consumption, among other changes.

Brewers across the state rallied in support of the reforms, with many arguing that the current laws will restrict their ability to grow. The industry expanded in Greater Baltimore in 2018, with the addition of new spots like Checkerspot Brewing Co. in South Baltimore, Suspended Brewing in Pigtown, B.C. Brewery in Hunt Valley and Inverness Brewing on a farm in Monkton; Union Craft Brewing's move into a much larger taproom; and a number of new breweries in the works (see: Mobtown Brewing Co., Nepenthe Brewing Co., Pooles Island Brewing Co.).

Even international brewer Guinness is getting into the craft brewing spirit with a 10-barrel brewhouse churning out experimental beers that are served in the taproom of the brewery's newly opened $90 million Baltimore County facility.

Franchot said last month he’s hopeful that some reform measures can find traction as a new session begins.

“I’m much more optimistic this year that we’ll do right by this group,” he said. “When you try to change anything in Annapolis, it takes a couple years.”

But the effort could face resistance from lawmakers who say lifting restrictions on brewery production and sales might lead to an increase in issues like drunk driving and health problems.

A task force created by the General Assembly is taking a look at the safety and public health effects of alcohol regulations, as well as whether the comptroller’s office is the best agency to regulate alcoholic beverages. A report on the matter was due Dec. 1 but has not yet been released.

Beyond breweries, other segments of the alcohol industry are expected to request changes of their own.

Legislation that may come up, according to a state issue paper on the topic, include bills allowing wineries to sell their products at off-site shops, allowing distilleries to sell mixed drinks on-site and allowing distilleries to sell their products at a greater number of farmers’ markets and events.

Kevin Atticks, who serves as executive director of both the Brewers Association of Maryland and the Maryland Distillers Guild, said those organizations plan to advocate for legislation that is similar to what was proposed last session.

The bills have the "same themes, slightly different numbers involved," Atticks said. Overall, though, their objective is "to modernize the laws."

"Our goal is to create a generational change for our brewers, so that what we get passed this next session should work for them for a good, long time," he said.

The 2019 General Assembly session kicks off Jan. 9.

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