Reform on Tap Task Force: First Meeting Recap, and Wholesalers and Retailers Rebrand

On May 24, the first meeting of Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot’s Reform on Tap task force took place in Baltimore. As a quick refresher, the task force was formed in order to create a model framework to reform Maryland brewery laws, to be introduced at next year’s General Assembly session. (Read the full announcement.) Also, as I mentioned previously, I am one of the 40 task force members.

As expected, the purpose of this inaugural meeting was to “set the table” for all task force members, as well as members of the media and public. City Paper published a good overview, but the short version is that if you were expecting fireworks, you probably left a little disappointed.

With that said, there were some fantastic presentations given that I highly recommend you review, as they were really the focus of the day’s agenda:

Maryland’s Beer Laws: Overview and Historical Perspective

This presentation was delivered by Franchot’s Field Enforcement Division Director Jeffrey A. Kelly. Not only did Kelly provide a nice crash course of what happened before, during and after Prohibition, he also put Maryland’s current laws into geographical context. (If the latter is of particular interest to you, start with slide 15 to see how Maryland compares to other states and localities.)

Brewer Retail Sales Privileges, Self-Distribution and Beer Franchise Laws in Selected States

Following Kelly, Brewers Association Manager of State and Regulatory Affairs Pete Johnson, brought more national context to the proceedings with his brief talk. Overall, it was a rather “safe” talk, but nonetheless informative.

Brewers Association of Maryland Presentation to Reform on Tap Task Force

In addition to outlining the goals of the Brewers Association of Maryland, Executive Director Kevin Atticks walked through the economic impact of Maryland craft breweries, potential growth for Maryland agriculture and how brewers benefit their communities.

Visit Baltimore: Culinary Tourism

Visit Baltimore Vice President of Public Affairs Allison Burr-Livingstone demonstrated how Baltimore’s craft breweries are part of a larger story of culinary tourism for Charm City.

Craft Beer and Salisbury, Maryland

As with the Visit Baltimore presentation, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day’s presentation showed local craft breweries – like Evolution – as key component of the revitalization of the city of Salisbury. This shouldn’t be a surprise to those who read this 2016 article from The Atlantic – pointed out by Julie Verratti of Denizens Brewing Co. (Silver Spring), during the task force meeting.

Here is the relevant passage from Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed:

“One final marker, perhaps the most reliable: A city on the way back will have one or more craft breweries, and probably some small distilleries too. Until 2012, that would have been an unfair test for Mississippi, which effectively outlawed craft beers by setting maximum alcohol levels at 5 percent. Now that law has changed, and Mississippi has 10 craft breweries. Once-restrictive Utah has even more. A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young (except for me) customers. You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception.” (Full article)

Learning to Play Nicely Together

As Hugh Sisson of Heavy Seas so aptly stated during the comment portion of the agenda, this last General Assembly session was “an embarrassment” – to the point where our state’s brewery legislation quagmire attracted quite a bit of unwanted attention from our neighbors in Virginia.

By the time the drama finally came to a close, no one was happy. And for the past month or so, it’s been a challenge to talk about Maryland beer with anyone, without the ghost of what had transpired casting its toxic, dark, lingering shadow over every conversation.

Call me naïve, but craft beer is supposed to be positive.

Local Maryland brewers not only brew delicious beer, they help revitalize towns, create job opportunities, empower farmers with increased revenue potential and are positive reflection of their communities worthy of celebration. So, the fact that everything has been so oppressively negative the past few months has been, to put it bluntly, kind of a downer.

While some considered the agenda for this first meeting to be a bit on the light side, I think it was very necessary for two reasons:

First, it was nice to bring the Maryland craft brewery narrative back around to something positive.

Second, it was important to have everyone just… sitting in a room with each other.

I’m sure there are going to be heated debates, as we start having in-depth discussions on more controversial topics – beer and wine in grocery stores, for instance. But for one afternoon, everyone was able to be in the same room and be civil with each other. Kind of like the first time you see an ex after a breakup; it’s still not what it used to be, but hey, at least you didn’t kill each other, right?

Wholesalers and Retailers Have Rebranded Themselves

To be fair, I’m not sure wholesalers and retailers came away the first meeting with the same level of cautious optimism. One task force member representing a distributor made a pointed comment to me afterward that they didn’t really feel there was room for them or their interests in the agenda.

To be fair, the agenda was heavy on presentations, as I mentioned earlier, but members were invited to comment or share any of their thoughts at the end of the meeting. They declined to do so.

Still wholesaler and retailer task force members – and their supporters – arrived at the first meeting as a new, publicly unified front.

In fact, it appears that since the end of session, a calculated rebranding effort has occurred in their camp. And I first caught wind of this shift the morning of the task force meeting, when I stumbled across a new website entirely by accident…

Before I touch on the website’s contents, a little background.

The website is underwritten by Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits in Annapolis. For those keeping track, Chuck Ferrar (a task force member) and David Marberger of Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits are both active past presidents of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association (MSLBA). (I covered their positions ahead of the 2017 Maryland General Assembly toward the end of this article.)

I am not presenting this information as a condemnation – it’s merely a statement of fact.

A little more digging yielded another interesting tidbit. The website is registered to Rice Consulting LLC:

Rice Consulting LLC isn’t the typical marketing or website design firm you’d contract to build a simple website; they provide political fundraising and consulting services for Democrats in Maryland.

Here are a few of their clients, but you can also view a more comprehensive list:

If you’ve been following the story of House Bill 1283 for awhile, names like Thomas V. Miller Jr. and Dereck Davis should be familiar.

Now, before you break out the pitchforks, it should be noted that they also list Del. Mary Washington of Baltimore City as a client on their website. Washington is a member of the Reform on Tap task force and articulated clear and genuine interest in becoming much more informed about the legislative issues facing Maryland craft brewers in her comments during the first meeting.

Why Should You Care About Buy Local MD Beer?

With the limited details I have at the moment, all I can say is that this is a carefully coordinated effort with the appearance of political muscle behind it that should not be ignored.

It’s not just another website outsourced to a run-of-the-mill design shop. It’s the start of an ongoing campaign with a well-defined messaging strategy that will probably only pick up more steam as we move closer to the next General Assembly session.

When I arrived at the task force meeting later that day, I was unsurprised to find that retailers and wholesalers were all wearing stickers with the “BUY LOCAL” logo I shared above. And when we went around the table to make our introductions, they were all prepared with the same set of talking points that backed up the message of the website:

As they introduced themselves, they made a point to state how long they had been in business; if it was a family-owned business, how many generations or years the business had been in that family; how many employees they have; etc.

I have a lot of thoughts I will share at a later time about this new messaging strategy, but for now I will say this: Maryland craft breweries are also small businesses, and I think that is a key detail that is sometimes purposefully left out, depending on who is telling the story.

Additionally, I want to draw attention to the fact that this new campaign is a prime example of how wholesalers and retailers know how to “rally the troops.” They are also experts at advocating for their interests to the public and representatives in a way that resonates – they’re job creators, they’re “part of the fabric of local Maryland communities,” etc.

Finally, this shows they know how to pivot quickly – as they’ve done here – and go to market with a memorable, cohesive and concise messaging strategy that will be very effective if left unchecked and unanswered. They’re hitting the ground running with a new narrative, where they are synonymous with Maryland small business and Maryland beer – not the Maryland craft breweries themselves.

To be clear, I am not someone who believes in dismantling the three-tier system – quite the contrary. Most breweries do not want to get into the business of distribution and retail; they want to be in the business of making beer, and they look to (and rely on) distributors and retailers as partners in their growth and success.

But anyone who supports or advocates for Maryland craft brewery legislative interests needs to be aware of this pivot. We also need to admit that Maryland breweries are now in the position of having to play catchup, where the other players involved have invested a lot of money and resources over many years refining their own advocacy machine.

The next Reform on Tap task force meeting will take place at Calvert Brewing Company on Wednesday, June 7, at 3 p.m. Media and the public are encouraged to attend.

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