Four Tampa Bay area brewery superstars shared the stage at Cigar City Cider and Mead in Ybor City on Tuesday night. From Cigar City Brewing was Vice President Justin Clark and founder/CEO Joey Redner; representing Tampa Bay Brewing Company was Mike Doble; and rounding out the panel was Kent Bailey, founder and president of Coppertail Brewing Company.
Prompted by moderator Christine Mendonca, Clark – also vice president of the Florida Brewers Guild – began the discussion by explaining to the crowd about the growler issue, and how the unlawfulness of the industry standard 64-oz. refillable beer container lies at the center of the convoluted legal and legislative battles during the past few years in the state.
“If I had known a career in beer would have gotten me so much into politics and legislation, I would have paid more attention in school,” Clark told the audience, eliciting the first of several rounds of laughter from the mixed audience of beer geeks and those interested in learning about the subject as it affects small business in general.
Doble then took on explaining the three-tier system of beer distribution, and the complex business relationships among suppliers (breweries), distributors and retailers.
But, he said, “even for a person in the industry, it’s hard to understand.”
The discussion turned to the subject of brewery tasting rooms and recent legal action by retailer groups seeking to “clarify” what’s commonly called the “tourism exception,” a line in state law enacted in the early 1960s to allow Busch Gardens, then owned by Anheuser-Busch, to sell beer on the same premises on which it was manufactured. Craft brewery tasting rooms have been allowed to serve and sell beer under this rule.
Things got feisty as the brewery executives defended their status as tourist destinations and stressed the importance of the tasting-room model as a way for a brewery to earn the money to grow.
Talking about the “tourism exception,” Redner said, “If I meet these same criteria (as did Busch Gardens), why can’t I operate under those criteria?”
Redner pointed out that the majority of states have similar exceptions for small brewers, to help them grow as a business. Doble countered that calling it an “exception” isn’t even accurate.
“There are no exceptions to the law,” he said. “There’s just the law.”
The discussion continued, covering topics such as beer samplings, currently not allowed in most retail establishments, and restrictive franchise agreements between brewers and distributors, which essentially amounts to a lifetime contract that requires extraordinary circumstances to exit for a brewer, no matter what the business practices of the distributor.
“Distributors like to say it’s like a marriage,” Redner said. “I say it’s not a marriage – you can get out of a marriage.”
The tone of the discussion remained mostly positive toward the distributor relationships, though. All speakers agreed that they had excellent relationships with their wholesalers, and they wanted solutions that would benefit all.
When asked during the Q-and-A to define who “the bad guy” was in this conflict, the consensus was “nobody.” The people involved on all sides wanted the best outcome; they just had different ideas of how that could be achieved.
The group emphasized how much help feedback from consumers and supporters was during the battles of the 2014 legislative session in Tallahassee, saying that lawmakers were astounded at the level of support.
Doble summed up the subtext of the discussion, which Mendonca defined as, what can consumers and other small-business owners do to help the breweries now?
UPDATE: Tampa Bay Startup Week has posted the video of the discussion.