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Brewery bill hits Statehouse floor again on Tuesday

Bill would allow S.C. breweries to compete with other states for beer tourism dollars

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Last Tuesday, Nick McCormac sat at his desk, watching a live feed of the South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee. And things were not going well.

The Columbia-based writer has been blogging about beer at Drink. Blog. Repeat. since February 2012. What started as a venue for chronicling South Carolina's craft beer scene has now turned into a news outlet for what's happening at breweries across the state. Over the last week or so, McCormac's posts have centered around a piece of legislation that's making its way through the state Senate, which proposed allowing breweries to sell 64 oz. of beer to consumers every 24 hours.

At least, that's what the bill was intended to do, before the Senate Judiciary Committee had its way with it. It added amendments to the bill that made distinctions between how much beer breweries could offer for samples (16 oz.) and how much they could sell to consumers (48 oz.), instead of the all-encompassing 64 oz. And then the real kicker: As it's written now, the law demands that breweries maintain liability insurance policies for $1 million per occurrence and $10 million in aggregate. You can see the bill as it's currently written here.

So now, a piece of legislation that was supposed to support the state's breweries has those very businesses, and beer fans like McCormac, in an uproar.

Currently, S.C. breweries can only offer 16 oz. worth of samples to its visitors. That means if you decided to take a tour of Westbrook Brewing Co., you can get four 4-oz. samples of beer (of course, as long as they're under 8 a.b.v.), no matter how many different brews they might have on tap. And how can anyone be expected to choose between the Udderly Milk Stout and the Weisse Weisse Baby when they're down to their last sample?

Boosting that amount up to 64 oz. would give tasters a lot of leeway. "If I go to Westbrook, and they've got 10 different beers on tap, under the current law, I'd only be able to get four samples of four of those beers, so I don't get the full experience," McCormac explains. "With the law changed, I could get small samples of every one of those beers and say you know what, I like this one a whole lot, I want to buy a whole pint."

Increasing the amount of beer that state breweries can sell also means South Carolina can compete with North Carolina as a beer tourist destination. Our breweries could become places where people can hang out for a few hours instead of going about their business as soon as they max out their allotted samples. As McCormac points out, the 64-oz. boost would give breweries more potential for exposure and let them pump out more product. And new laws might also help attract bigger, nationally known breweries to open branches in the state, just like they're about to do in North Carolina.

Sen. Senator Sean Bennett (R-Dorchester), one of the bill's sponsors, was not happy when he saw the changes the judiciary made to the legislation.

"On a personal basis, I am very familiar with the homegrown breweries here, the COASTs of the world, the Holy Citys, the Westbrooks, and all that here in town and have visited their facilities at one time or another," Bennett says. "It's a great entrepreneurial story, and I thought this would be a great idea to help them compete with our neighboring states."

But then he saw how muddy things got in front of the judiciary. He thinks its because some of the 26 senators on the committee aren't familiar with the state's breweries and how they operate. "There's probably a couple of members of the judiciary that are opposed to expanding alcohol related type laws in the state," he says. "That's not an indictment on them. They have their feelings. But I think a lot of it was just more misinformation than anything else."

When the amended bill came to the senate floor on Thursday, Bennett voted to carry it over in order to delay its vote. In the meantime, he's working on a new amendment that will hopefully clear up a lot of the issues of the current one.

Jaime Tenny, co-owner of COAST Brewing Company and founder of the South Carolina Brewers Association (SCBA), was happy with the original bill and its 64-oz. limit. That was the compromise made among the parties involved.

"That would still allow us to operate as a 'quote-unquote' tap room," she says. "I feel like four pints is a reasonable limit for people."

Tenny was one of the major proponents for the 16 oz. samples in the first place, an argument won just recently in 2010, but it's not enough for her business. "Most people kind of go, all right, well that was great, I guess I'm leaving now," she says. "So we hope with that 64 ounces, it can be more of a community center and a place to meet and a place to talk about beer. We hope that's the next level."

And the insurance requirement was overkill, she says. Even Tenny's insurance guy confirmed that it went above and beyond any combination of aggregate and general liability he'd ever seen. While she acknowledges that insurance is a good business practice — and COAST is already insured — those numbers are unfathomable. Sen. Bennett agrees.

"It makes absolutely zero sense," he says. "Take the wildest bar you can think of in downtown Charleston. We don't currently require any type of liability insurance on those folks today. All those folks have it, because they're business people, but the state doesn't require that. But yet in this bill, that senator wants us to require or put that requirement on a subsection of our business community and single them out."

Since the bill has made it past the judiciary committee, anything that can happen to the bill will happen on Tuesday, when it comes up for a vote on the Senate floor. Unless Bennett tries to carry the bill over again, he plans to take the floor and recommend that the amendment not be adopted, letting the Senate know that his own amendment will come up right behind it.

"Even if they accept the amendment, my secondary amendment will basically strike that amendment down and replace it with mine," he says. "If [the Senate] goes forward with the other amendment, it's an awful bill for the industry, not just here in Charleston but all over the state. It's a poor economic development bill, it's a poor fairness bill, and it really just needs to be killed." Still, he's optimistic that he'll be able to alleviate a lot of the concerns.

For now, Tenny and her fellow beer activists are working behind the scenes with the parties involved to deal with these unexpected (and what she feels are unnecessary) details. If she could have her way, the bill to go back to the previously agreed upon complete 64-oz. cap. Tenny recommends that supporters reach out to their state legislators to express their support, before the bill heads to the full senate. Here's a list of the judiciary members.

"It is confusing, and that's why we're feeling we need to go back to the drawing board with them, because obviously they're not understanding what we're all about and what we're intending to do," she says. "So there's going to be some re-educating on what it all really means."

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