EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

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November 17, 2013

Lawmakers eye 'outdated' brewing, license laws

BOSTON — When it comes to beer, wine and liquor licenses, the Legislature is being asked to step aside and relinquish some control.

State lawmakers heard last week from craft beer brewers who want changes to a law they say “handcuffs” them in their ability to compete because of unbreakable ties to wholesalers. Municipal officials appealed to remove control of liquor licenses from the state and give it to local officials. And wine drinkers want to lift a ban on direct wine sale shipments to consumers.

Advocates for each of the three bills called alcohol-related laws outdated and failing to reflect the times.

In 1971, when the Legislature passed laws governing relationships between breweries and wholesalers it was to protect the local distributors from the whims of national beer makers, according to Rob Martin, founder of Ipswich Ale Brewery and president of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild. The law provided enormous protection to “mom and pop” wholesalers from the national brewers, he said during a hearing.

The industry dynamics have shifted in four decades, Martin argued. Small craft brewers — including the likes of Ipswich Ale Brewery and Gloucester’s Cape Ann Brewing Company — fight for wholesalers’ attention to get on store shelves and in restaurant taps.

If the wholesaler ignores the brewer, they are locked in to the partnership with no way out because of a 1971 law, Martin and other brewers testified.

Brewers are pushing for a bill to make it easier for them to opt out of contracts with wholesalers, filed by Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley.

Dennis Bates, the brew master of Opa Opa Brewing Co. in Southampton, said his business was growing steadily from 2004 to 2006, with the brand selling 30,000 cases. They invested in a larger brewery and hired more employees. A few years later, after signing on with a distributor, their growth had stopped, he said.

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