Courtesy of New Jersey Monitor

The drawn-out fight over whether the brewery industry is hampered by onerous regulations continued Thursday during a committee meeting discussing legislation aimed at brewery license holders.

Brewery owners, bartenders, and restaurateurs packed the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee hearing, where lawmakers heard a discussion of three bills — one to codify new rules and regulations for breweries, another that would increase the number of events breweries can hold annually and allow them to coordinate with food vendors, and a third to permit license holders to hold an unlimited number of on-premises special events while also creating a farm-brewery license. 

In Pennsylvania and New York, breweries are allowed, sometimes required, to sell food. But current New Jersey statute limits breweries to prepackaged chips and crackers. Organizers of any private events have to bring their own food and must take it when they leave.

Breweries are also limited to 25 public events a year and 52 private parties, and are limited in how they can advertise. Current laws also restrict how much beer they can brew in one year. 

“I’m trying to operate my business in a way that we see in our neighboring states. They have far more privileges that any of these bills are asking for,” said Scott Wells of Bolero Snort Brewery. “We are just trying to find ways to grow our brand so that we do what we’re designed to do.”

Some of the bills discussed Thursday overlap, but they all seek to increase the number of events a brewery can host; allow breweries to sell coffee, other small snacks, and non-alcoholic beverages; and do away with the requirement to provide a tour to visitors before they drink on site. 

Breweries in the state have accused the Division of Alcohol Beverage Control of implementing rules that limit the industry’s growth. Death of the Fox in East Greenwich is suing the ABC over a July ruling that placed 18 restrictions on craft breweries, including limiting public events. The rules were made in 2019 to balance competition between restaurants and breweries but were delayed due to the pandemic.

“What we have here is regulations that have been put on small businesses — any regulations on small businesses hinders their ability to operate, and there has been no reason given why limited breweries are singled out as someone that has to have those regulations,” said Jim Graziano of the New Jersey Brewers Association. “This proposed legislation solves the problem.”

Breweries have exploded in the Garden State in the last decade — from 25 in 2012 to more than 140 today. The fight over state regulations intensified after Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said in September he wants to look at what is impeding the growth of breweries.

Brewery owners Thursday pointed to some regulations that irk them — like a playoff baseball game watch party being counted as a private event or limited time to report that they want to host an event.

They stressed that some fundraisers, open-mic events, and trivia nights make them part of their community. Limitations on events are only hurting small business owners, they said.

“We’re already booked at 23 out of 25 events, leaving us with no ability to hold last-minute fundraisers like we did this year to raise $15,000 for Ukraine,” said Jeremy Lees, who runs Flounder Brewing Co. in Hillsborough.

Restaurateurs said they see breweries as unfair competition.

Alicia Miller, a bar and restaurant owner, said two liquor licenses cost her more than $400,000 each. She said she doesn’t fear competition but does not “welcome an easy way to do it.” Brewery licenses start at $1,250 and run to $7,500, depending on how much beer they brew.

“If breweries wanted to be open, they had to have tasting rooms. We said OK, then the laws were confusing, that there was all this gray area, so we made it more specific,” she said. “What’s the difference between a bar and restaurant and a brewery if they’re allowed to do everything I’m allowed to do?” 

Dana Lancellotti, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association — which represents both restaurants and breweries — called the bills a “very difficult and complicated issue.” While they support establishments partnering up to sell food at breweries, the group believes there should continue to be a clear difference between the parameters of a restaurant’s liquor license and a brewery license.

“This is not something that can be diminished in a day, but it will happen if we are not careful to protect that,” she said. “We stand behind the protection of those who have invested tremendous amounts of effort and time and money and put many things in their life at risk to afford those licenses.”

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash