The breakneck speed with which H.3512 raced through the S.C. legislature delighted craft beer enthusiasts and shocked longtime political watchers. The bill was introduced mid-April and signed last week. Rarely do laws get passed that quickly in Columbia. Even the bill's delay in committee was resolved posthaste. But how did the so-called Stone Bill, which will allow breweries to sell food thereby opening the door to serve a wide array of other brews, gain such quick passage in a state long hampered by blue laws?
The Stone Bill focused on the delicate differences between breweries and brewpubs. A brew pub is an eatery first, a brewer second. Their beers are typically brewed for sole consumption by their restaurant patrons. As such, they can't distribute their beers through a wholesaler or produce more than 2,000 barrels a year. In Charleston, Southend Brewery and Edmund's Oast are prime examples. They can sell plenty of other beers, wine, and liquor, but don't expect to find Edmund's Oast's Peanut Butter & Jelly anywhere else but Edmund's.
Breweries are classified as alcohol producers by the state, and their ability to sell their beers on-site is much more limited than a brewpub. Visitors to their breweries can buy up to three pints per person per day, with the stipulation that the breweries charge the retail equivalent for each pint. Brewpubs have no such on-site consumption limits.
In order to attract a large brewery, like Stone Brewing Co., H.3512 initially sought to raise the brewpub production limit to 500,000 barrels per year. It would have allowed brewpubs to start selling their beer to wholesalers for distribution outside of just the brewpub.
By increasing a brewpub's production limit and allowing brew pubs to distribute their beers through wholesalers, the Stone Bill would provide a path for a brewery to convert their license to that of a brew pub, begin serving food, and immediately take advantage of the unlimited on-site consumption clause.
As the S. C. Brewers Association united its affiliated breweries and their leaders behind the effort, the website SCBeerJobs.com rallied the social media crowd by encouraging supporters to email their local representatives to voice their support. The site was launched by Push Digital, a political consulting firm owned by Columbia, S.C.-based strategist Wesley Donehue. His game plan for the bill's success was in its name. "Most South Carolina legislators don't give a damn about craft beer. But they all care about jobs," said Donehue. "Naming it the Stone Bill was a messaging game plan I came up with and it worked because it was the right strategy."
The name piggybacked on a mid-January announcement that California-based Stone was scouting locations for an East of the Mississippi expansion. But to be considered, S.C. would have to act fast explained Brook Bristow, general counsel to the S.C. Brewers Association. "Our legislature is certainly becoming more knowledgeable about the benefits of craft beer and the jobs it can create and the economic revenue that it can generate for the state," said Bristow. "But in this case when Stone came out and waived this huge number, $30 million and 350 jobs, that was huge. We really wanted to capitalize on that opportunity."
The nomenclature was a turn off to some in the craft beer community who thought that it was pandering to the interests of the nation's 10th largest brewery at the expense of the Palmetto State's homegrown outfits. Nick McCormac, who runs the blog "Drink. Blog. Repeat." expressed his frustration that "such legislation is receiving such a fervent push now only because the prospect of attracting Stone is on the horizon."
But naming aside, state beer wholesalers weren't onboard. They feared that such an agreement would disrupt South Carolina's three-tier system of sales, in which "a manufacturer, brewer, and importer of beer are declared to be in business on one tier, a wholesaler on another tier, and a retailer on another tier," according to the statute.
Ultimately, compromise was reached by changing the law in the brewery section of the state statute, rather than the brew pub. "It was just a matter of the language that was originally drafted in terms of the brew pubs," said Bristow. "When they came back with the compromise, it was kind of a no-brainer for us." Breweries are now allowed to offer food service, and doing so will alleviate them of the three pint limit for on-site consumption. They'll also be allowed to sell the beer and wine of other breweries. Liquor will still be off limits.
"It's a huge win for us," says COAST Brewing co-owner Jaime Tenny. "We're now in the process of working with DHEC to understand the food component, but if some breweries want to do a full-blown restaurant, they can." Plus, should Tenny and her husband, brewer David Merritt choose to have a food component, the two will now be able to put in taps for other beers, local or beyond.
The grassroots efforts spearheaded by both the S. C. Brewers Association and the SCBeerJobs site had a tremendous effect in helping the bill reach Gov. Nikki Haley's desk. "We drove close to 6,000 emails into legislators' inboxes," said Donehue. The effort was visible in the final vote on the bill, with the lone dissent coming from Sen. Tom Corbin of Travelers Rest, who chalked up his disagreement to the bills promotion of alcohol use.
It remains to be seen which local breweries will decide to take advantage of the provisions of the Stone Bill by adding food service. After preliminary conversations with DHEC, Bristow advised his brewers that food trucks could be utilized to take advantage of some provisions of the bill. "In terms of just being able to serve on site without limitation, the food trucks are going to be a saving grace," said Bristow.
Either way, the victory is seen as a win for all breweries in South Carolina. "The handcuffs are off and they have a lot of options," commented Donehue. "They might want to take those options, they might not. But at least now they have the ability to decide their own fate."