The Florida Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would create regulations for the state's booming craft brewing industry despite arguments that it would stifle job growth.
The bill that passed on a 30-10 vote would put restrictions on container sales at the breweries that can now sell unlimited amounts of kegs, cans and bottles of beer to visitors.
Sen. Kelli Stargel said the bill (SB 1714) is needed because craft breweries are operating under a loophole created more than 50 years ago for Busch Gardens, the Tampa theme park that began as an attraction at an Anheuser-Busch brewery.
"I'm afraid this industry is working in a lot of ambiguity, and I don't want a growing industry in the state of Florida working in an area that is not clear," said Stargel, R-Lakeland. "We're clarifying the law so what they're doing today, they're going to be able to continue to do."
The number of craft breweries in Florida has grown from six in 2007 to nearly 90 expected to be open by the end of the year. The idea of regulating them stemmed from a simple idea of allowing them to fill half-gallon refillable beer containers known as growlers. While Florida allows unlimited gallon and quart growler sales, the state's odd bottle laws ban the 64-ounce size that is the industry standard in 47 states. The bill would legalize that container.
But Anheuser-Busch InBev distributors have opposed allowing half-gallon growlers unless more regulation is placed on the craft beer industry. Senate President Don Gaetz has sided with the Budweiser distributors, citing his friendship with Lewis Bear, a big GOP political donor who owns an Anheuser-Busch InBev distributorship in the Panhandle.
Sen. Jack Latvala, who has fought for a bill that simply legalizes the half-gallon growler with no strings attached, criticized the bill. He said it is an attack on craft breweries in an effort to protect distributors.
"It is going to stifle an industry that's been growing in Florida. I know when I was elected to come back to the Senate in 2010, my mantra was jobs — improving the economy," said Latvala, R-Clearwater, adding that the growler issue "started out as what I thought was a good little simple idea, but it evolved into something that will put people out of work, that will put people out of business."
The bill would allow bottle and can sales at breweries, but they would be limited to no more than 20 percent of the total beer production. The restriction wouldn't apply to breweries that produce less than 2,000 kegs of beer a year. It also would restrict keg sales to one per person per day.
Stargel said breweries would still be able to grow under the law.
"This bill is not going to limit their growth," Stargel said. "We are not restricting not one single craft brewer and we're not limiting what they can do. I know they don't believe it, and I'm sorry."
The Florida Brewers Guild opposed the bill, arguing it would add unnecessary red tape to the breweries.
"We've got this industry that's growing, why are we putting arbitrary restrictions on how they can grow and how their business model operates?" Aubuchon said.
House bills dealing with the craft beer industry have stalled, but none have the restrictions in the Senate bill, making it questionable whether any of the bills will go to Gov. Rick Scott.