Legal battles are often a fact of doing business. Medium sized and large businesses often devote a good deal of time and energy to lobbying and activism efforts and some even employee full- time personnel to work for change. Craft breweries are usually small business and do not have the resources to fight city hall, even though they know that the brewing industry often faces many legal hurdles. Finding effective ways to work for change and get special interests on a brewery’s side was the topic of “From Bill to Growler Fill: How Brewers Can Win Over Special Interests” a seminar sponsored by the Brewers Association that I attended at the Craft Brewers Conference in Portland Oregon on April 16, 2015.
Your Expert Panel
Heading up this seminar were three individuals representing different angles on the brewing industry. The attendees were:
- Brook Bristow, Executive Director/General Counsel with South Carolina Brewers Guild
- Wesley Donehue, Owner and Political Consultant with Push Digital
- Will McCameron, Owner/Brewmaster at Brewery 85
These three men all work out of South Carolina and are well versed regarding South Carolina and the legal challenges brewing operations face each day. South Carolina has some of the most restrictive brewery rules in the nation and these guys are on the fighting end of legislation every day. They were undoubtedly selected for the panel due to their diverse expertise and for their common knowledge of the legal issues faced by the brewing industry in a single state.
Know What Works and What Doesn’t
Everyone knows that breweries face constant legal hurdles. Many of the rules are complete nonsense and they sometimes discourage entrepreneurs from getting involved in the brewing industry altogether. Alcoholic beverages face some scrutiny on the federal level, but the bulk of the laws are determined by individual states and this is precisely where grass roots activism has to begin.
Here at Great Beer Now, we have worked to spread the message and help overturn some of the outrageous, restrictive beer laws around the nation. Citizen activism is key to reversing these bad laws and Bristow, Donehue, & McCameron offered up some very sound and useful advice for dealing with lawmakers and persuading them to eliminate bad laws, for a more craft beer- friendly environment. Here is some of the general advice they offered:
Find a Friend in the State House– To get the process going, seek out someone in the state house or senate with an active interest in craft beer. It could be someone with a business interest or someone with a personal interest who simply loves craft beer. Better yet, try to find two politicians from opposing political parties who love craft beer. The bipartisan cooperation will go far in pushing the legislation through committee all the way to the governor’s desk.
Stress the Economy– If there is one thing that law makers will have to pay attention to, it’s something that will grow the economy. No matter what the beer law or related issue, always talk about job growth, productivity, and other economic matters. Don’t waste your time talking about the “greatness of craft beer” or the really cool brewery you visited last week. These things are meaningless to a law maker, but job creation matters. It will be very difficult for any state law maker to say that he/she is against something that will create jobs and grow the economy. Stressing jobs forces any politician to step back, take a closer look, and seriously consider the legislation at hand.
Aim High!– What exactly do you wish to change about existing laws? Whatever you want, always start by asking for more. If you ask only for what you want, it is likely to get watered down in committee and you will end up with less than you desire. For example, if your goal is to cut the state excise tax on craft beer from 50 cents per six pack down to 40 cents, don’t ask for 40 cents, ask for something much lower, like 25 cents. Once the legislation goes to committee with the requested 25 cents, it will likely get whittled down to a smaller reduction. If you play your cards correctly, it will end up settling somewhere between 25 cents and 40 cents, which is exactly what you want. Ask for a tax reduction to 40 cents per six pack and you are likely to end up with 45 cents.
Latch on to an Existing Topic or Opportunity– If there is already something pending in the beer industry world, use it to your advantage. This is what Wesley Donehue did in South Carolina. As some might recall, Stone Brewing was ready to expand eastward and South Carolina was mentioned as a possible location for a future brewery. The problem was, of course, South Carolina law- it was too restrictive pertaining to beer and brewing. Knowing the popularity of Stone Brewing’s search for an east coast home, South Carolina activists created the Stone Bill, pointing out that South Carolina just might get the new brewery if it would reform its outdated laws. Like Donehue stressed during this seminar, calling the legislation the Stone Bill was a publicity stunt more than anything. The main purpose of the legislation wasn’t to get Stone Brewing to expand to South Carolina (although that would have certainly been icing on the cake), it was to get lawmakers to change existing, anti- craft beer laws.
Set up a Web Site– To keep communication flowing between interested parties and the legal team that represents the voice of change, it is imperative that any activism on the state level include a web site. By establishing a well- organized web site, interested parties can go directly to a place online where they can find answers to questions, lookup background information, and find ways to contact state lawmakers.
Utilize Bloggers and Social Media– This is where blogs like Great Beer Now and citizen bloggers come into play. Once a web site is set up, activists need to know it exists. By sending out the message to local bloggers, journalists, etc., the message can quickly be spread via social media to a larger audience, building awareness and effectively applying pressure to those on the law making end.
Fight the Good Fight
Running a brewery isn’t easy. Other businesses have legal obstacles also, but breweries and other adult beverage companies tend to face more challenges than average. Many of the laws against craft beer are complete and total nonsense. Others are unethical. Still more are bad for the economy and many of them date back to the days when there were very few breweries in existence and really no need to challenge the laws.
With political activism, the key is knowing how to play the game. Politics is a nasty and often dishonest game, loaded with special interest deals, kickbacks, big business manipulation, and other problems. Unfortunately, it’s a game we have to play but if you stick to some of the basic rules outlined above, you could very well end up with a more craft beer- friendly state with fewer restrictions and better beer for all.