BY RYAN MARSHALL AND DANIELLE GAINES
There’s nothing like a good craft beer to bring people together, state Comptroller Peter Franchot told a crowd gathered in early December at Brewer’s Alley in Frederick.
Franchot was touting the Reform on Tap Act of 2018, a package of legislation designed to help local breweries. “All of the Trump voters and the Clinton voters are in collusion together to get this bill passed,” he said.
The bill would remove all limits on beer production, taproom sales and take-home sales; allow counties to set guidelines for taproom operating hours; eliminate franchise law requirements; remove restrictions on contract brewing; and let smaller breweries distribute their own products.
Brewery regulations came to a head last year when lawmakers sought to increase brewery taproom sales and loosen other restrictions in an effort to allow Guinness’ parent company, Diageo Beer Co. USA, to open a large brewery taproom in Baltimore County.
A bill passed by the General Assembly last year increased the barrel limits for brewery taprooms from 500 barrels a year to 3,000, but also required brewers that sold more than 2,000 barrels to buy the extra 1,000 barrels from a wholesaler at a markup.
Opponents criticized the bill for creating an uneven playing field for the industry and unnecessarily restricting the growth of brewery taprooms.
Flying Dog Brewery threw the state’s brewery regulations back in the spotlight last month after CEO Jim Caruso said “legislative issues” caused him to place a planned $50 million expansion project on “permanent hold.”
Randy Marriner, a Howard County restaurateur and owner of Manor Hill, a farm brewery, said Maryland’s reputation in the craft brewing industry is not good and needs to change.
“Right now, our state has the national reputation of ‘the state with limits,’” Marriner said. “It is the state where Ballast Point did not locate. And where Flying Dog did not expand. It is the state where limits had to be raised for Guinness to even show up here.”
Franchot said the proposed legislation is upsetting the “powers that be” of lobbyists and others who have controlled alcohol laws in Annapolis. “They are so panicked, they are so shocked” that the public might finally realize what they’ve been doing, he said.
The “12-pack” of reforms would fix the problems that have led to Virginia and Pennsylvania actively recruiting Maryland breweries to come to their states, he said.
Franchot said he was “cautiously optimistic” the General Assembly will pass the bill in the election year session that begins in January.
The issue has the strongest and broadest support of any issue he’s dealt with in his political career, he said.
Senators and delegates aren’t going to want to face voters if they don’t pass the legislation, he said. “It’s a very potent issue.”
The legislation is important for not just the breweries, but also the other companies and industries that support them in related areas, said Elizabeth Cromwell, president and CEO of the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce.
The laws governing the craft brewery industry were written after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and then revised in the 1960s, said Tom Flores, the brewmaster at Brewer’s Alley and Monocacy Brewing Company.
Generally speaking, the alcohol laws in the state are antiquated, Frederick County liquor board Chairman Jesse Pippy agreed. “Some of them … need to be updated.”
Frederick County has the largest number of breweries, wineries and distilleries in the state, Pippy said.
There are 37 active Class 5 brewery licenses in the state, including eight in Frederick County. The county is also home to two of the state’s 29 microbreweries—Barley & Hops and Brewer’s Alley—and four of the state’s 10 farm breweries are in Adamstown and Mount Airy.
A report from the Maryland Board of Revenue Estimates concluded that Maryland’s craft brewing industry had an overall economic impact of $637.6 million in 2016 and supported or created 6,541 jobs, including those in restaurants.
Other states are looking at Maryland breweries that are prospering and doing everything they can to lure them away from the state, Flores said. “They’ve made a real effort. It’s demonstrable.”
Dave Blackmon, the owner of Smoketown Brewing Station in Brunswick, said he’s been approached by Virginia to move his business across the Potomac River to that state.
But he’d like to stay in Maryland, and is very happy Franchot has stood behind the brewing industry. “Right now, I see good change coming,” Blackmon said.