In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Lawmakers take aim at tiny craft breweries

“Huh?” Marcia said. “That makes no sense.”

Of course she’d say something disparaging about Sen. Kelli Stargel’s attempt to thwart this awful threat to our Florida way of life.

What else would you expect? The young woman was sitting on a bar stool in Oakland Park’s Funky Buddha Brewery, a nest of beery iniquity, drinking a tall glass of Missionary Blonde Ale that had not been mass-produced by an international conglomerate or delivered by a politically connected distributor.

Poor Marcia, a tiny bead of amber liquid on her upper lip, didn't seem to realize that with every profane gulp she was undercutting Sen. Stargel’s sacred “three tiers” of the beer business. During a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, Stargel talked as if there was a biblical prohibition against allowing beer makers, distributors and sellers to get all mixed up in some unholy ménage à trois.

“In its purest form, the three-tier system says you can’t be more than one of those,” the senator from Lakeland warned her fellow senators, with a reverence other legislators reserve for gun deregulation. “Either you’re a brewer, either you’re a distributor, either you’re a vendor.” (And never the twain shall drink.)

Florida’s upstart craft breweries are very damn impure, making and selling beer right there on the premises. What’s worse, their brews sabotage expensively marketed, bland-tasting brands mass-produced by the likes of Belgium-owned Anheuser-Busch InBev. “This tastes a hell of a lot better than Budweiser,” Marcia insisted.

Oh, girl. How you talk. The Florida Legislature cannot abide such blasphemy. For the very purest of reasons: money. Michael Van Sickler of the Miami Herald-Tampa Bay Times capitol bureau reported that Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, has received at least $6,000 in campaign contributions from major beer distributors over the last few months. Perhaps that explains her mafia-inspired fix to the craft beer menace.

Her legislative solution would require craft brewers to give distributors a payoff before they would be allowed to sell takeout beer.

Technically, her bill would require that a craft brewer first sell its beer to a distributor, then buy it back before they could sell it to retail customers. Except the beer would never change hands. Distributors would not need to go to the trouble of transporting cases of beer back and forth. The actual product would never leave the brewery. The distributor need not distribute. Only money would be transferred. From little brewer to big distributor.

A tariff, skeptical Sen. Jack Latvala called it, “sort of like paying protection to Vinny in New York.”

“Huh?” asked Marcia, in the Funky Buddha, as I tried to explain why the legislators, despite incessant boasts about cultivating small businesses, are so intent on protecting the big boys from these upstart craft brewers. And with much more fervor than they’ve summoned for, say, regulating Florida’s faux medical clinics hawking steroids and human growth hormones.

“That doesn't make sense,” Marcia said, unable to grasp the Byzantine ways of Florida politics. Maybe I should have explained how Senate President Don Gaetz was tight with Pensacola Anheuser-Busch distributor and beloved political donor Lewis Bear. And how his friend Bear wants something done about these pesky brewers.

Through large glass windows that make up the tap room’s east wall, Marcia and other beer drinkers could peer into the actual Funky Buddha Brewery, a network of pipes and hoses and big stainless steel vats and industrial-sized fermentors. The operation churns out 10,000 barrels of beer a year — plenty enough to keep me and the rest of the Herald newsroom gang happy but hardly a sales volume to worry the big boys. The combined sales of 76 of the state’s craft breweries account for barely 5 percent of the beer Florida consumes each year.

Stargel told her fellow committee members that her three tiers were necessary to allow the state tax collectors to keep track of beer sales. As if there was no other way to keep craft brewers from cheating when they report their on-premise sales. Though, presumably, distributors collecting their payoffs will be able to devise a plan to track brewery sales.

Of course, her three-tier system is just as disingenuous as New Jersey’s “consumer protection” law prohibiting upstart Tesla from selling electric cars from its own retail outlets, instead of through car dealerships. Car dealers and beer distributors write hefty campaign checks so that politicians will write laws to stifle their competition.

The committee approved the payoff bill 8-1. Looks like Vinny’s gonna get his protection money.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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