“Wait, Why Should Maryland Care About Virginia’s Approach to Craft Beer?”

I want to start this by stating that I know to throw a beaming spotlight on Virginia’s open-armed approach to nurturing and cultivating a welcoming environment for craft brewers to grow their businesses helps Virginia by providing them with positive press. However, to forge a clear, strong path forward for Maryland’s craft beer industry, we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror at what we’re doing wrong.

While what happened with House Bill 1283 was tragic and demoralizing, it is simply a public display of the tangled legislative mess that has been idling under the surface of the Maryland legislative pool for years. We just happened to catch it this time.

So, we will begin by evaluating the actions and attitudes of our neighbors to the south – Virginia – because not only do they provide perspective, they also impact us.

Virginia Sees Our Failures as Opportunities (and They Are Taking Action)

Earlier this month, I shared an announcement from a brewery in planning, in which the ownership had opted to reverse their decision of starting up their operation in Maryland:

We feel that the other states we have researched which have much better legislation in regards to small business and especially breweries are much friendlier to new businesses and breweries and therefore should benefit from us taking our business there. This decision [to abandon Maryland] wasn’t easy since we have been planning this for quite some time but if the state cannot support up and coming breweries we have no choice but to move to a state that does. (Read the full article.)

At that point, it didn’t matter that the fate HB 1283 was as yet undecided – to them, the writing was already on the wall: Maryland doesn’t support craft brewers.

Three days later, I received this email – reprinted here with permission – from someone placed within the Office of the Governor in Virginia:

Hey Liz:

We met last year in Loudoun when my former boss, Todd Haymore, spoke at the Beyond Brewing Summit. Todd and I have been following the Maryland state legislature session, and saw your recent post on the brewery in planning that is now moving away from Maryland.

Maryland’s loss might be our gain; I figured the neighborly thing to do would be to reach out and offer assistance to the brewery if they’re considering Virginia as a new home. As you’ve written about, Governor McAuliffe is actively recruiting new investment from the growing craft beer industry to Virginia. There’s still a lot of opportunity for growth in our Commonwealth, and I’d love to help identify a new home in Virginia for this brewery.

I know the owner has chosen to stay anonymous for a reason, but if you’re in contact with him or her, and able to pass along my message and contact information – I’d greatly appreciate it. 

Hope to see you at CBC next week!

Cheers,

[Redacted]

(Editor’s note: Links and emphasis in the email above were added by me, not the email’s original author.)

Unfortunately for Maryland, I learned at the Brewers Association Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C., last week that this is not an isolated incident.

Virginia Governor Rolled out the Red Carpet for All Brewers at CBC – Including Maryland Brewers

When I approached the entrance to Virginia’s reception at the Craft Brewers Conference on Wednesday afternoon, I gasped. While I’m not sure what I expected, it certainly wasn’t anything to the scale of what was in front of me.

The entrance to the reception.

The crowd.

A little bit of bluegrass.

But it was much more than banners and postcards and flyers and beer samples and bluegrass – although there was plenty of all of those things. Woven between the lines of the inviting, jovial atmosphere was a clear message:

“If you’re a craft brewer, come to Virginia. You are very much wanted and celebrated here.”

To underscore this sentiment, Virginia’s government officials were out in full force. Their presence and their words illustrated the opportunity for craft brewers awaiting them in Virginia, as well as the top-to-bottom buy-in they could expect from Virginia’s legislators.

First, Brewers Association President and CEO Bob Pease took the stage as part of his introduction of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

During his remarks, Pease said:

I could go on and on about [McAuliffe’s] accomplishments, but I want to talk about his support of independent craft brewers across the country. He is one of our strongest allies in craft beer in the United States … He helped move three of the largest and most successful West Coast craft breweries to the Commonwealth. He has vowed to visit every brewery in the state of Virginia. The governor understands how craft breweries are small businesses in their own right and vital to the local economy … I’m hoping the other 49 governors across the country will follow the lead of Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Then, Gov. McAuliffe took the stage, and it was hard to watch as a Maryland craft beer lover. But I wasn’t the only one watching – there were Maryland brewers and Marylanders with breweries in planning present as McAuliffe spoke.

Gov. McAuliffe addressing the reception crowd.

McAuliffe inspired the crowd with an obvious passion for the craft beer industry, articulating what was essentially an open (and very convincing) invitation for brewers to come to Virginia.

After his speech, I caught up with him to discuss what Maryland could be doing differently:

McAuliffe: We’ll do whatever it takes to get craft brewers into Virginia. As I said earlier, we’re at 191 [breweries] today, and I’m very proud. I personally went out and recruited Stone, Deschutes, Ballast Point, Green Flash to come to Virginia.

We love craft brewers – and what’s there not to love? It’s tourism. It’s helping the [agriculture] farmers – it’s really important for a lot of Virginia’s rural communities. Those farmers are in the game, because they’re providing the raspberries, strawberries and everything else – so everyone in Virginia benefits. And it’s a billion dollar industry in Virginia.

How many do you have in Maryland?

Me: Close to 70.

McAuliffe: Oh, that’s embarrassing. Tell Maryland, get in the game on this!

I will point out here that Maryland is smaller than Virginia – with our 12,407 square miles to their 42,775 – but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the spirit of his argument: Maryland is lagging behind.

Catching Up with Now Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore

Following my chat with McAuliffe, I reconnected with Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore – who originally wow’d me back in 2016 as Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture.

Then-Secretary of Agriculture Todd Haymore speaking at the Beyond Brewing Forum, 2016.

To a packed room, Haymore said:

“I was joking with my friend from Maryland here about the government being here to help you, I think in Virginia we really do that right … If you don’t take away anything else from the conference, it’s this: Virginia is all in with craft beer.” (Read the full article.)

Like many others I had chatted with during the Virginia reception at this year’s CBC, Haymore was also very aware of the recent turmoil Maryland’s craft beer community had gone through with HB 1283.

As the reception began to wind down, Haymore and I sat down at a nearby table to discuss the matter. Here are selected excerpts from that conversation:

Question: From the outside-in perspective, what’s your assessment of what the Maryland legislature did to craft brewers this past session?

Haymore: I think we viewed what Maryland was attempting to do as pretty interesting. From our standpoint, we feel like over the last six to eight years, we’ve really tried to work with the craft beer industry to help them grow and become part of the economic development fabric of the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

Then to hear about [HB 1283], which seems to be trying to slow progress and growth down in a neighboring state… frankly, it caught us by surprise.

I’ve had conversations with Maryland brewers as recently as last week – and I think up until this year Maryland wasn’t viewed as being as progressive as Virginia, but it also wasn’t being viewed as potentially anti-craft brewery. That’s what I’m hearing now from some people I’ve talked to, regarding this year’s legislation.

But at the same time, we view [the situation with HB 1283] as a chance – I mean, we’re next door neighbors. If you’re not happy where you are, and you’re looking to go to a state that is open and welcoming to the craft beer industry, we’re here. Because we get it: It’s economic development, it’s community development, it’s agricultural development, it’s tourism, it’s tax revenue, it’s job creation, you name it. That’s why it’s woven into our entire economic development platform.

Question: With HB 1283, one of the biggest challenges was pinning someone down with an on-the-record statement as to why certain groups would have supported such a restrictive bill. But through research, we were able to glean is that it came down to… at least giving the appearance of trying to preserve the post-Prohibition, three-tier system argument, as well as assertions that brewery taprooms at a production facility – like a Flying Dog or a Union – would “interfere” with local taverns.

Is that something you have experienced in Virginia?

Haymore: I think there’s always a push and pull, whenever there are legislative initiatives introduced to help grow certain types of businesses. It’s never 100 percent everybody on the same page.

But to your question, no. I can’t recall a time where an argument like that came up. Everyone I’ve worked with here in Virginia – whether they were 100 percent or not – still see it as a win-win to develop and promote the craft beer industry.

Question: I know this will come with a Virginia sales pitch tucked in there, but if you could give one piece of advice to the Maryland legislature about what they’re doing – other than to continue sending our breweries to you [laughter] – what would it be?

Haymore: You hate to give a neighbor or a competitor advice and counsel, but I would say that you only need to look at a next door neighbor to understand that all of the craft beverage industries – wine, beer, distilled spirits, cider – cross a lot of economic development paths. It benefits everyone.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that craft beer is about job creation through a myriad of opportunities is missing out. Again, you hate to give your competitors advice and counsel, but I wish Maryland the best. And I wish other states the best.

But I hope we continue to support existing businesses. I hope we continue to recruit new businesses in from states like Maryland. States like North Carolina. Other states where we’ve taken phone calls from, where they say, “Hey, what are you guys doing there in Virginia? We’re hearing a lot of great things.”

So, What Does This All Mean for Maryland?

I harbor no illusions that we can snap our fingers and suddenly live in a state where the kind of regressive attitudes that brought us HB 1283 in the first place are replaced with the kind of legislative attitude Virginia so clearly possesses. (We need to walk before we can run.)

But as tempting as it might be to throw in the towel, I believe we should look to our southern neighbors and view their actions and overall posture toward craft beer as a wakeup call – a wakeup call we must take seriously.

For some state legislators and special interests in Maryland, try as they might, they will never be able to roll back the craft beer industry’s meteoric rise or its continued traction. Simply put, craft beer is here to stay. It may mature and evolve, but it’s not going away. That ship as sailed.

Unfortunately, if these stakeholders continue to succeed in stalling efforts to attain progress for the craft beer industry in the legislature, Maryland will be left behind, while other states – like Virginia – will continue to rake in the economic development dollars and job opportunities at our expense.

In fact, Virginia is already doing it now – and not just in the form of “neighborly” exploratory phone calls or the email I shared above. I was told of one instance where an established Maryland brewery was presented with a monetary incentive to pick up their brewery and move to Virginia.

And can you really blame Virginia for doing so?

Comptroller Peter Franchot shaking hands with Hugh Sisson of Heavy Seas, following Franchot’s meeting with Maryland brewers at CBC.

This is something that Comptroller Peter Franchot gets. That’s why last week he announced the formation the Reform on Tap task force – to create model legislation that will reform the laws pertaining to craft brewers, to be introduced the following year – and took the time to sit down with Maryland craft brewers at CBC to hear their concerns.

We have a chance right now to make something positive out of the mess that was HB 1283 – to lay the foundation for a healthier craft beer industry in Maryland in the years to come. We have the ability to right the wrongs of this year’s legislative session and move the needle in a positive direction for the Maryland craft brewers who have continued to shine in spite of the hurdles they are forced to jump over.

But that can only happen if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.

The Maryland legislature’s reputation with our craft brewers took a well-deserved sucker punch in the gut this month. Whether legislators intended to or not, they said through their actions that craft brewers should “stay in their lane” and be thankful that they’re even allowed to exist at all – so why should craft brewers trust them?

Is that the Maryland we want to be? Or should we take down all those signs that say we’re “open for business,” and put them in a care package to Virginia? That’s the choice we have in front of us.