Gather ‘round, lads and lasses. Pull up a stool, grab a cold pint, and steel yourselves for a story. How many of you knew that, earlier this year, Kentucky nearly lost all of its brewpubs? It’s true. The story was a little quiet, but now that the new state laws are in effect (as of about 2 weeks ago) it is probably time to tell it. Before I get started, I do want to lay down a couple caveats. First, this is just the story as I saw it. Things definitely happened when I wasn’t around. Discussions occurred to which I was not privy. I flat out forget a lot of stuff. This isn’t a Historie, it’s a Storie. Second, I’m a generally trusting guy. I like to believe that when bad shit happens, it is more due to a miscommunication or a lack of understanding than the presence of malice. This story doesn’t have any real antagonists, just inconveniences.
So let’s lay the stage, shall we? Kentucky has had some form of brewpub for roughly 25 years. I’ll leave the precise historical details to folks who were allowed to drink back then. The important part is that the same microbrewery licensing statute has allowed said brewpubs to operate since then. The presumption was always that we were allowed to produce beer and then to sell it at our bar. The land was happy, and beer flowed. Then the Question was asked. I don’t know who asked it, and frankly, I don’t care. The Question was one about the clarity of that authorizing statute. Apparently it never said explicitly that we could both make the beer and sell the beer without having to get someone else involved as a middle man. The entire Kentucky brewing industry had simply assumed that was what it meant, but it apparently didn’t spell it out in crystal clear detail. Once the Question was asked, the ABC informed the brewing community that a squadron of government lawyers was on the task of sorting it all out. Once it was indeed sorted, the news wasn’t good. We were told that the law actually only allowed us to make the stuff and sell it to a distributor. We could then buy it back from that distributor and sell it on tap after it passed through the Sacred Three-Tier System. This adds another substantial layer of cost, alters the business model for a brewpub, and essentially makes it impossible for Kentucky brewpubs to operate at anything but a significant financial loss. PERIL!!!
Not to fear, though, my beer-inclined friends. Our Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) is a reasonable one, and they told us we would have plenty of time to work out the situation. We need to be moving in the right direction, but they are not about to pull the rug out from under us all without plenty of warning. They HAVE to enforce the law, but they are allowed to let us adapt to this change in interpretation before rolling in and cracking skulls. Good. So we (mostly being the Kentucky Guild of Brewers) start to make plans. We try to get to know folks in Frankfort a little better. We gather industry data both in and out of Kentucky. We look for opportunities to start discussions about how to keep us all in business. The 2013 Legislative Session starts and with it comes a bomb: We have to change the law this year or the new interpretation will be enforced at the end of the session. No idea from whence this vigor comes and don’t care, but there is work to do.
We scrambled to work with legislators and their staffmembers to get things going quickly. We had to stay a little bit quiet though, because we were trying to change our licensing statute so that it expressly gave us the right to do the things that we had been doing for the last quarter century, and this kind of thing has the potential to really upset people in what is still a state rife with dry territory if the discussion gets too loud. So we moved ninja-like in silence putting together a solution without rocking the boat so much that the whole thing tanked. A delicate act indeed.
The details of the actual session are convoluted, fuzzy, and a bit confusing, but the long and short of it is that this was an uphill battle. The Kentucky Legislature is not traditionally known for its haste or fervor in passing alcohol bills, and the ABC was already trying to pass their own bill that would overhaul a lot of muddy regulatory issues and (hopefully) simplify the way licensing works. Then there were the Klingons. Sorry, cling-ons. Every time our bill started to gain a little steam, it seemed, someone else would try to tack something they wanted onto it, and the process slowed down a little more.
There was finagling, there was bargaining, there was arguing, begging, writing, calling, screaming, gnashing, and all manner of other verb. When the dust settled, though, our language had made it through as a piece of Senate Bill 13. We had to make some sacrifices (e.g. the new 288 oz. limit), but we ultimately got explicit permission to operate as we have been as long as Kentucky has had brewpubs. We have to thank for all their hard work all the Legislators involved in the passage of this bill, especially Rep. Clark, who initially sponsored our language, and Rep. Keene and Senator Schickel, who were instrumental in its ultimate passage. There were, of course, numerous other Legislators as well as staffers, lobbyists, industry-folk, Guildies, and various other friends who helped our language along its winding path to eventual passage. Thanks to all of them!
Once again, the land is safe, and the beer flows. Heed well these lessons, though, my children. Take nothing for granted. Enjoy your brewpubs and breweries. Tell them your feelings by speaking and by drinking. Keep your ear to the ground, and should the necessity ever arise, be ready to stand up and fight for Kentucky beer!
P.S. Remember to let me know if you have some specific topic you would like me to babble about next time. You can tell me in person, by e-mail, or in the comments right down below. Thanks for reading, and happy drinks.