This past week, I was invited to take part in an event called Free the Brews hosted by Generation Opportunity.
Generation Opportunity is a nationwide non-profit funded by the Koch Brothers. They claim to be non-partisan, but they share funding mechanisms with a number of conservative groups and their messages are certainly libertarian/tea party heavy. As it appears to me, they are a group aimed at getting Millennials to vote conservative in the name of pro-business, or anti-fun, or something. Millennials are already known to skew more liberal than previous generations, so I guess this is a run at convincing a certain amount of them that they’re conservative, really. GenOpp is co-opting the craft beer industry largely under the banner of “down with the three-tier system”, or to put it succinctly, “Free the Brews.”
If you know me, you know I am not what you would call “conservative” unless we’re talking conservation of mass.
So, then, you might ask, what the hell was I doing at this event?
Well, a little history:
Back in May, Generation Opportunity wrote an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer titled “Free North Carolina’s brews from archaic regulations”, written by the head of the group in North Carolina, Alex Johnson. It highlights some issues that are, indeed, issues in North Carolina, but also puts focus on things that really have no bearing, and some that are plain wrong. The primary message is “regulation is bad.”
The NCBWWA responded with a piece titled “There’s a reason N.C. is such a great beer state” in which they make the claim that beer here is great because regulation is AWESOME and also the distributors made it great.
The real truth, of course, is that what makes North Carolina a great beer state is the beer and that without the beer from the breweries we’d all be getting shitfaced on Muscadine wine right now.
Anyway, as President of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, I wrote an op-ed response… which never got published. Here’s a PDF if you’re curious what I had to say; it’s not really the point today.
When GenOpp announced the Free the Brews events, they invited the Guild to take part and the Guild was – understandably, I think – nervous. While GenOpp is championing some of the causes that the Guild believes in, they have reckless rhetoric. It’s the kind of rhetoric that creates political opponents. The Executive Director and I talked about it, and we felt that we didn’t want a narrative about beer to exist in North Carolina without our direct participation. We also knew that this event was happening whether we were there or not. So we agreed to take part. It was a calculated risk.
In the week leading up to the event, I was contacted by a lot of friends asking me something along the lines of “What the hell are you doing?” I had a lot of press contact me and ask me if I was a member of GenOpp (I’m not), or how did the Guild come to co-sponsor this event (we didn’t).
On the day of the event, a previous set of Free the Brews events were brought to my attention up in Detroit. They were followed up by an Op-Ed piece by GenOpp: Detroit, Michigan’s Newest Craft Beer City.
Here’s a snippet:
The most burdensome law is the three-tier system which requires that brewers, distributors, and retailers exist as separate entities. Brewers who produce over a certain number of barrels of beer cannot sell their products directly to consumers. Instead, they must sell to a distributor who then sells to the retailer. Not only does this steer profit toward the middle-man, it also makes expansion and experimentation difficult.
The culture of craft beer in Michigan and across the country is one of camaraderie, and brewers are always trying to push the envelope with new and exciting brews. Unfortunately, regulations make it hard for brewers to drive change. When Reith decided it was time to open Atwater and bring his passion for beer to the young people of Detroit – all of whom are over 21, of course – he faced a few setbacks.
“I had to go through every level of government just to get a permit,” he lamented at the event. Just waiting for the permit to go through federal, state, and local officials took almost twelve months. If regulations were streamlined to make the permit process simpler and speedier, more craft breweries would be able to open, spurring an increase in local competition and more creative products for consumers to choose from.
Less government means more opportunity, more craft beer, and more freedom.
And here’s the response, written by Mark Reith (who was quoted out of context above) and his distributor, Imperial Beverage: Michigan, craft beers, and growth
A snippet from that article:
Gardner took a remark about permits out of context and craftily implied that it was an attack on Michigan’s entire alcohol system. In fact, during the event Gardner attended, Atwater never addressed Michigan’s alcohol regulations. Just cumbersome permits.
What must be stated unequivocally: Michigan’s system works for the small brewery, not against it.
So, I was nervous going into the event on Thursday. I did my best to tell this story: We have it good in North Carolina. Our laws are pretty damn friendly. There’s a reason that breweries are moving here from across the country and opening up at the fastest rate in the country. It’s not because we’re all suffering here. Are there laws that need to be updated? Sure. The bulk of the law was written in 1938 and updated in 1983. The craft industry barely existed the last time the laws were revised. We’re in a different place now, and the laws will change to reflect that, but de-regulation is not the answer.
We’ll see if I am misquoted in my very own op-ed this week. If so, my distributor and I will probably have a blast crafting a rebuttal. The literature (seen to the right here) is definitely along the same lines as the Michigan event.
But that’s also not the point (he said, 1000 words in):
The point is this: Craft beer is currently in this really strange space in politics in which we are neither the darlings of the right or the darlings of the left. We enjoy support from both sides of the aisle, and it enables us to make a lot of progress when it comes to updating old laws to fit a new industry. The last thing we need is to be co-opted by A Cause. As soon as we are seen as a Republican issue or a Democratic issue things are going to get really sticky.
Look, changing laws takes a long damn time. It’s a complicated system, and not just because of the network of relationships and partisanship, or that some laws are only considered during certain sessions in non-election years, but also because changing a law in one place has far-reaching effects. Simple word changes in a law can have effects that go far beyond the intent of the author. Tax changes can change the entire course of state budgets. It’s natural that the pace of industry will outstrip that of policy. That’s okay. Policy changes to fit us, eventually, so long as we work reasonably and responsibly toward an established goal.
I’m happy that there are other groups out there talking policy. I’m glad that there’s apparently a nationwide discussion about alcoholic beverages that isn’t about restricting them further. On the other hand, I’m terrified that it’s happening outside of the brewing industry. Even brewers don’t necessarily agree about what is best for breweries. The possibility of solutions being proposed by people who don’t even understand the problems – just because they want to further a broad political agenda of “more young voters” – could hamper our industry in a real way. Grassroots support is great. Grassroots policy is tricky.
So, my message for Millennials and GenOpp and everyone is this. If you really want to help craft beer and breweries? Go to your local brewery and buy a pint. I promise that they will pursue their own interests just fine. In fact, one of the reasons that there’s a North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild is precisely that: to help brewers pursue their own interests. The Guild has a robust legislative agenda. We’re working toward getting a lot of laws updated. It’s the ones that brewers are concerned about, and I promise all of them are working toward getting beer into your hands because that’s how we continue to pay our mortgages. We know the people involved, we know how these laws will effect brewers. We’re doing a lot less guess work than an outside group would.
If YOU want to get involved and follow a call to action, join the NC Craft Brewer’s Guild and volunteer, Support Your Local Brewery through the Brewer’s Association, but please, let’s leave partisan politics and reckless rhetoric out of it.