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Grassroots Group Pushes Annapolis to Enact Better Beer Laws

There’s a sad irony in the Maryland beer scene. Maryland breweries have seen tremendous growth resulting in not only more beer but also better beer flowing within and being exported from the state. Unfortunately, there has also been a fair bit of policy and political turmoil around the brewing industry in that same period. DCBeer has documented the policy battles in Annapolis that have had major operational impacts on taprooms across the state. As we flip the calendar to 2019 and we turn our eyes toward a new legislative session, we talked to some beer fans advocating for reforms that they feel will benefit both breweries and consumers in the Free State.

Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws (MBBWL) is a non-profit grassroots organization whose mission is “to push for pro-consumer reforms in Maryland alcohol laws.” We recently had a chance to write with members of this group via email. The responses below, which have been lightly edited for clarity and length, were crowdsourced from members of the MBBWL. In interests of full disclosure, Greg Parnas, who's a contributing writer for DCBeer, is currently serving in a pro bono capacity as legislative counsel to MBBWL, and he helped to coordinate these responses to my questions. Richard Fawal, DCBeer’s new publisher, is also involved in the MBBWL’s effort.

For folks who haven't been paying attention, give us a thumbnail sketch of the state of play for Maryland breweries as we enter 2019? What have they recently gained and lost legislatively, and what do they stand to gain or lose in 2019?

As some past articles from DCBeer have noted, the past two years have been rather exciting for Maryland breweries, and not really in a good way. In 2017, the Craft Beer Modernization Act failed, while the legislation that did pass, HB 1283, and the argument over the entrance of Diageo (Guinness) into the state, caused a lot of bad blood. Brewebries did achieve a couple of victories:

  1. Explicitly authorizing contract brewing
  2. Expanding the limit on taproom sales from 500 to 2,000 barrels

The final legislation, however, also had two significant drawbacks:

  1. Counties were newly empowered to deny licenses to production breweries for taproom consumption of beer
  2. It stripped counties of their power to regulate taproom hours and set a hard window of 10AM-10PM throughout Maryland

The sudden and backroom nature of how HB 1283 passed left a bad taste in the mouth of Maryland breweries and craft beer fans over how Annapolis operates.

Comptroller Peter Franchot’s Reform on Tap Task Force did not achieve any gains the last two years and engendered anger that resulted in an especially contentious 2018 legislative session. To spite him, legislators passed the “Task Force to Study Alcohol Regulation, Enforcement, Safety, and Public Health.”  That Task Force was championed and chiefly staffed by people who are hostile to craft brewers, the modernization of alcohol laws, and especially Comptroller Franchot. The Task Force released its recommendations on Wednesday and suggested:

  1. stripping Franchot’s office of his authority to regulate alcohol;
  2. a requirement that all alcohol-related bills include a public health impact statement; and
  3. preventing any county from further allowing chain store sales of beer and wine.

We’re still waiting to see how many of the new task force’s proposals are put into legislation, and in what form.With that said, MBBWL is hopeful that we can gather support and move the needle on some pro-consumer and pro-brewer laws in 2019. There are a lot of younger/newer delegates and senators in the Assembly that seem open to change.

Who are the major players here that beer fans in the Free State should be aware of?

There are several key players that affect your ability to drink what you want:

  1. Brewers Association of Maryland (BAM)

    • Generally supportive trade organization led by Kevin Atticks

  2. Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA)

    • Established retailer coalition that argues for status quo, not interested in more progressive beer environment

  3. Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association (MBWA)

    • Very opposed to progress and counts a number of other organizations as its friends

  4. House Economic Matters and Senate EHEA Committees

    • Unlike most other states, any change to a Maryland county’s alcohol laws MUST pass through these statewide committees in addition to any statewide initiative

Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws successfully led prior efforts to legalize wine shipping (2011) and corkage (2012) and hopes to put on a similar effort to reform beer laws.

Your organization is called "Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws" (MBBWL). Aside from the obvious, what does you rgroup want specifically and how does it push for those goals?

We feel that the voice of the everyday Maryland citizen, with regard to the types of choices and regulations that we want, is usually ignored. Our goal is to push for reforms that support our local manufacturing businesses (i.e. breweries) and make it easier for adults in Maryland to buy the beer they want, when and how they want, with the obvious considerations for health and safety.

For the start of 2019, MBBWL’s agenda includes:

  1. Ending limits on the amount of beer that breweries can sell through their taprooms and the amount consumers can purchase to-go from a taproom;
  2. Expanding the legal limit on taproom hours;
  3. Amending the direct-to-consumer wine shipment law to include beer;
  4. Amending Maryland state law so counties can authorize Sunday alcohol sales without state legislative action; and
  5. Amending the corkage law to allow BYOB for beer.

MBBWL will push for our goals in two basic ways. The first is to gather stakeholders from across the alcohol industry and find pro-reform voices (where possible) among all the tiers. The second will be to organize Marylanders across the state to contact, meet, talk to, and lobby their elected officials to pass better beer and wine laws.

What kinds of successes has MBBW achieved in the past?

MBBWL’s biggest successes have been the passage of direct wine shipping, ending 30 years of debate, and legalizing BYOB for wine at bars and restaurants that want to offer that option to their patrons.

How can people get involved with MBBWL? Do you have any events coming up?

We love friends!  While we revamp our website (www.mbbwl.org), find us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/mbbwl) where we will message how we can best use volunteers.  There are a number of upcoming outreach events that we would love for people to attend, and a portion of what you spend will go towards the organization’s efforts.

Stay tuned to event announcements on the Facebook group.

The drumbeat of politics is ever-present in American life it seems like. What would you say to folks tuning policy battles out? What about people inexperienced with any kind of advocacy or contacting their legislators? Any advice for them?

We understand it can seem a bit absurd to care so much about beer at a time when so many other issues with higher stakes are being decided. However, this fight over reforming Maryland’s alcohol laws is about more than just beer. It’s about how local government functions and whether entrenched political players can maintain their agenda despite the desires and interests of the general public. If you want local businesses, particularly local manufacturing businesses, to thrive, if you want adults in Maryland to be treated as such, then the laws of Maryland need to be reformed.

For better or worse, because most people do not engage in local or state political issues, the power of even a relatively small number of citizens getting involved is considerably higher than with any federal or international policy fights. There is no special training required in order to be an active citizen. Your elected representatives work for you, not for campaign donors. MBBWL will work to educate volunteers and provide them all the information and resources they will need to be more effective advocates. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of calmly and rationally explaining to a state Delegate/Senator, or their staff why you support better beer laws.    

Is the MBBWL connected with BAM, and are their goals similar?

Our organization is an independent grassroots political non-profit. We do not have any BAM staff on our board or otherwise involved in the group’s decision making or political activities, nor do we receive any sort of funding from BAM. While the goals of BAM and MBBWL may and certainly do converge, our organization is more closely focused on the consumer side of Maryland’s beer regulatory landscape. With that said, MBBWL does support the continued success of our state’s wine, beer, and spirits manufacturers.

What are some concrete steps beer fans in Maryland can take to secure better beer and wine laws?

Figure out who your elected state Delegate and Senator are and let them know that you want to see progress on improving the alcohol regulatory environment in Maryland.  Then sign up for MBBWL’s Facebook fan page and get ready to engage your friends and family.

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Thanks to the MBBWL for making the time to chat with us. To all of our readers, no matter how you fall on these issues, please be informed about the policy choices your elected officials make.

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