Booze Bills Could Help Florida's Craft Alcohol Industry

Among the stunning variety of ways Florida trails behind America's more progressive states — Stand Your Ground ring a bell? — the most tragic of all might be our antiquated booze laws. While drinkers from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, quaff hoppy IPAs and smokey whiskeys brewed or distilled right in their backyard, Florida's craft alcohol business is hamstrung by Prohibition-era rules.

There might finally be momentum to change that, though, as Tallahassee legislators are considering fixing laws ranging from the size of beer and wine containers to small distilleries' right to sell their products — all with the aim of sparking a Sunshine State drinking renaissance.

"If we're going to have a craft beer industry, that contributes to tourism and broader economic development," says Rep. Katie Edwards, a Democrat from Plantation. "It's not the college kids in Ybor City I'm worried about."

That's why Edwards sponsored a bill to fix one of Florida's silliest cerveza laws: a ban on unusually sized containers that dates to 1965, when lobbyists created it to cut into Miller's popular seven-ounce pony-can market. Alas, the language also means it's illegal to sell 32-ounce growlers — the refillable containers favored by microbreweries because they're a cheaper way to sell beer-to-go without a full-fledged bottling operation.

"The law we have now doesn't make too much sense. It's an arbitrary size restriction," Edwards says. "It's archaic."

Speaking of archaic, Florida also still has a law on the books forbidding distilleries from selling their products in-house. That means microdistilleries — a handful of which have begun opening around the state — can't sell directly to customers.

Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart has a bill to erase that rule, brought to Tally on behalf of a new distillery opening in Old Town St. Augustine. "These are Florida-manufactured products that we should be supporting," he says. "If tourists are coming, we want them to walk away with a Florida-made product."

Even wine could be in for a more progressive legal take this year. Rep. Frank Artiles, a Republican from Miami, has a bill that would allow larger containers of vino to be sold — a move that would let restaurants import kegs of wine to sell more of the red and white nectar at a time.

Of course, there are plenty of hurdles to the new laws getting passed. Renuart's bill has already stalled in committee, thanks to retailers worried that big liquor companies could use it to bypass their stores. Edwards, meanwhile, has had to bargain with Anheuser-Busch and other big beer companies that could see their market share cut as craft breweries benefit.

With Floridians finally demanding more than Bud Light and Canadian Club, though, it could be only a matter of time before Tallahassee is forced to get its alcohol act together. "The consumer is driving this," Renuart says. "They're really looking for something unique from their own region now."

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

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