A comprehensive overhaul of Finland’s strict alcohol laws is expected to bring about big positive changes for the Nordic country’s small brewers. The burgeoning industry, though, which has been advocating for such change going on two decades now, says the big step forward coincides with a big step backwards.
As passed by Finnish lawmakers on Friday, the so-called Alcohol Act enables microbreweries—now defined as producing no more than 500,000 liters, or about 4,260 barrels—to sell their own beer of up to 12% ABV at the point of production. The change affords brewers a new avenue to sales, granting them a level of increased economic liberty that was at the very heart of why lawmakers were pushing for change to begin with.
The problem, though, according to the Finnish Microbreweries Association, is that while the new law grants small brewers the right to retail (and actually recognizes the concept of “craft beer” under its guidance), it also dramatically tightens the definition of such breweries, as the new production cap is being reined in from 15 million liters (127,000 BBLs). As such, the small beer industry is given a generous gift, but the gift itself also redefines its own recipients and declares formerly recognized microbreweries as now too big to qualify for said gift.
“The passing of the proposal feels like winning a silver medal,” Mika Tuhkanen, CEO of the Finnish Microbreweries Association, tells GBH. “After 20 years of fighting for the on-site selling rights it feels like a win. But [the] silver medal comes from the [artificial] concept of a craft brewery with the [500,000-liter] limit.”
Of the country’s 90 small breweries, however, only five produce more than 500,000 liters and are therefore still barred from retail rights. Meanwhile, the effort to re-calibrate the country’s booze laws faced fiery opposition in the name of public health. Indeed, the National Institute for Health and Welfare suggests the bill—which includes a number of other changes applicable to the broader alcohol industry—will cause a nationwide increase in alcohol abuse.
“This is a sad day in the history of Finnish alcohol policy,” says Paivi Rasanen, an opposing lawmaker, according to Reuters. “The parliament consciously made a decision which will increase misery, alcohol-related deaths and diseases, assaults and drunk driving.”
To try and quell these concerns, Finland is also raising taxes on booze in order to generate at least €100 million in revenue ”for the prevention of alcohol harm.” That said, in addition to the brewery initiative, the Alcohol Act also enables grocery stores, kiosks, and gas stations to sell stronger alcoholic beverages. Such change rids the state-owned Alko chain of its monopoly on selling stronger booze. Furthermore, the bill does away with categorical licensing for bars and restaurants, instead establishing one license to cover the sale of all alcoholic beverages, enables them to stay open later without acquiring a special license, kills the moratorium on happy hours, and more.
The bill passed by a narrow 98-94 margin last week, surviving a scare on Thursday when one of the opposing lawmakers, the above-mentioned Rasanen who is also a doctor, was literally summoned away from the debate at hand to tend to a political aide reportedly suffering from alcohol poisoning at a parliamentary Christmas party.
—Dave Eisenberg, with additional reporting from Aleksi Friman