Good Beer Hunting

Maine Brewers to State: Please Legalize What We’ve Already Been Doing for Decades

Maine brewers are hoping to clarify a regulatory issue that for years has left them unsure of the legality of moving beer around. Specifically, brewers want to pass a bill that would explicitly enable them to transfer beer between multiple brewing facilities, a privilege granted by federal law but left unacknowledged at the state level. In their efforts, they’ve run into opposition from wholesalers, retailers, and state regulators.

Though many brewers that already operate multiple locations in Maine have—for decades!—trucked beer from one to another, brewers say state regulators have offered inconsistent and conflicting guidance regarding the legality of the practice. This, they say, has left them fearful of unintentionally breaking the law. But it’s not just those that already have multiple spaces to run that want clarification. Brewers looking to embark on first-time expansions also want assurance that they won’t be punished for transferring beer between forthcoming facilities.

Opponents, meanwhile, have taken to two lines of argument:

First, the classic: Explicitly allowing brewers to transfer beer between locations—which, again, they’ve been doing for years—would give them a distinct advantage over their competitors, “namely the privately owned restaurants,” as one such bar and grill testified earlier this week.

And second: the bill, as written, invokes federal law. In this line of thought, the concern isn’t over the destruction of the three-tier system (which is actually kind of refreshing). Rather, as Gregory Mineo, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations writes in his testimony, “This bill proposes to remove the state’s autonomy and oversight of licensed manufacturers, and elevates the responsibility for oversight to the Federal Government.” Here, the dispute is over language, and not necessarily the act of transporting beer itself. The Maine Beer & Wine Distributors Association also cited similar concerns.

Peter Bissell, co-founder of Bissell Brothers, a young but quickly growing brewery in Portland, tells GBH some unspecified “language adjustments to the bill” should alleviate those concerns. (His company dreams of building a second brewery in Milo, about two and a half hours north of Portland, where he and his co-founder brother Noah Bissell grew up.)

“There were several doom-and-gloom scenarios the opposition laid out,” he tells GBH via email. “The REAL reason for the bill is to outline in law what is already common practice throughout Maine—breweries of a sole and common ownership transferring finished, packaged goods between two locations.”

Indeed, written testimony from a number of brewers from all over Maine didn’t advocate for the destruction of the three-tier system, or to yield state autonomy to the feds, but rather hammered home the need for clarification with regards to a practice long employed by the state’s beer companies.

Writes Kai Adams, vice president of the Maine Brewers Guild and co-founder of Sebago Brewing, which operates multiple locations: 

“As we added locations the clarity of the rules started to change depending on who was writing the license… The real stress came as different inspectors started interpreting the law and making different requests. This usually came at a very stressful time where you have spent all your money on renovations, inventory, staffing and equipment and now you were trying to get licensed and getting mixed signals about a law that you have been operating under. We know…if it was easy then everyone would do it. Well, it shouldn’t be that hard for anyone.”

The bill, which was introduced last month, currently rests with the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs.

—Dave Eisenberg

Maine brewers still have plenty of room to grow – if they’re allowed [Portland Press Herald]