Editor’s Note: In full disclosure, I am a member of the Reform on Tap task force and not a third-party observer.

This afternoon, the Reform on Tap Task Force, organized by the office of the Comptroller of Maryland Peter Franchot earlier this year, will meet for a fifth time at Peabody Heights Brewery (Baltimore) at 3 p.m., with a town hall meeting tomorrow at Evolution Brewing Co. (Salisbury) at 5 p.m.

This will not be my usual long-winded recap of the task force meeting since I have a lot of ground to cover — not just what happened with the meeting, but also the leaked legislation that was covered last week.

You can, however, watch the video of what transpired below:

What matters most about this meeting — held at Jailbreak Brewing Co. (Laurel) — is not necessarily the granular back-and-forth of conversation, but rather the dynamics of the players involved.

The agenda was a continuation of the previous discussion, regarding franchise law and the relationships brewers have with their distributors. On the one hand, distributors were sticking to their guns, saying the laws some consider to be too restrictive are a necessary layer of protection for their business — just as they did at the last meeting.

On the other hand…?

Well, with the exception of a few brewers who raised their hand and contributed, many of the brewers have been present, but ultimately silent. And that’s a big problem.

Where Brewers Fall Short, Distributors and Retailers Excel

Brewers have a lot going for them, and a lot of people who champion their cause — consumers (a powerful group, since they vote), as well as the Office of the Comptroller. In fact, the latter provided a platform through this very task force, in response to the unfair treatment they received during the last legislative session.

(Psst! If you’re new here, and “House Bill 1283” means nothing to you, now is the time to get caught up.)

And yet, even though I was told by someone from the distributor/retailer camp after the first meeting that it was “obvious” the task force was heavily stacked in favor of the brewers, meeting after meeting, they’re still running the room in small, subtle but significant ways.

As I said after the first meeting, we need to admit that Maryland breweries are now in the position of having to play catch up, where the other players involved (distributors and retailers) have invested a lot money and resources over many years refining their own advocacy machine.

Distributors and retailers show up, week after week, as a unified front. In front of them, binders filled with prepared, shared talking points, ready to advocate on behalf of themselves and each other. 

In the audience, their local and national lobbying players are in attendance, often ready to chime in, should it be required.

They’ve spent decades building this strong advocacy coalition, and they know how to step up to the plate and knock it out of the park when it matters most.

And on the other side of the table are the brewers.

Again, they have the consumers on their side and the Comptroller with this task force. But unfortunately, aside from a handful of regular voices — Carly Ogden from Attaboy (Frederick), Julie Verratti from Denizens (Silver Spring) and Randy Marriner of Manor Hill (Ellicott City), to name a few — it’s pretty quiet.

(Of course, they are certainly not the only ones, so please do not consider that a complete list.)

I’m not a brewer myself, so I do not pretend to fully understand the position that many of them are in. Additionally, I know there are a lot of reasons why a brewer may choose to be quiet.

For one, many of them are sitting across the table from distributor partners who have substantial control over their success, so pushing back could have real consequences on their business.

There also may be buy-in issues regarding the task force itself — will it do anything, ultimately?

On top of that, many of the topics we are covering pertain to niche issues that may not apply to all brewers, so they may not feel they have a dog in the fight and are waiting for something that matters to them to surface.

And I am sure there are many other reasons I could never even think of.

The bottom line here is that I don’t believe that any brewer sitting around the table is complacent or doesn’t care about the plight of other brewers — quite the contrary. Part of what makes the Maryland brewer community so great is how much love and support they have for each other.

But the fact remains that the other players around the table are crushing them when it comes to sticking up for each other. Loud. Often. When it counts.

We may be talking about Class 5 brewery laws this year, but this is simply a chapter in a larger story, where Maryland’s small and independent brewers have been unfairly maligned for years.

The details of who is under the microscope this year don’t matter, because we could easily be talking about farm breweries or Class 7s in the years to come.

We only need to take a trip back to this past spring to Del. Derrick E. Davis‘ testimony in front of the Senate EHE committee for House Bill 1283 to get a clear example of that:

“The only reason why this is on the table is because of that (Diageo/Guinness) economic development project,” Davis stated.

“There is a misconception that we aren’t allowed to pass bills around here unless we get the approval of industries. And that’s not how I operate,” he pointed out later on, with a distinctly combative tone. “You can have your input, but we have the final say. And I don’t need your approval to do it.”

Given that the resulting legislation – the now infamous House Bill 1283 – clearly aligned with and supported the interests of everyone but local Maryland brewers, there was no mistaking the target of his ire. (My full article for The Capital.)

Again, I know I’m not a brewer, so there is only so much I can relate to or understand, in terms of their situation.

But from where I am sitting, they need to go from a group represented by a few power players at that task force table — who seem to be the only ones invested in capitalizing on this opportunity that’s been handed to them — to a unified coalition of brewers that sees and gets the big picture of what is happening here, who do their damnedest to advocate together as a group.

It’s very hard to watch those who are vocal, meeting after meeting, become visibly upset or taken aback by opposing statements that fly in the face of fairness and the best interest of breweries. They raise their hand. They speak. They push back… while others seem content to be silent.

It’s particularly mind-boggling considering how opinionated many are willing to be as soon as the meeting concludes.

A Leaked Preview of the Comptroller’s Planned Legislation and Confirmed Consumer Support

Even with these challenges on the table that very much need to be addressed, the ship is still sailing forward.

Maureen O’Prey — author of Brewing in Baltimore — dropped quite the bombshell late last week on her website.

I understand that some of you may be inclined to take her anonymously-sourced exclusive with a grain of salt. However, having known her for many years, Maureen has my vote of being beyond reproach in her work and in the integrity department. 

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, here’s the scoop:

Privileged information has been divulged that Comptroller Franchot has decided to move forward with sweeping legislation transforming the way craft beer is made, distributed, and sold in the state of Maryland. Here is the proposed legislation (for the 2018 session):

  1. Taproom and brewery hours will revert back to what they were prior to HB1283 (leaving it up to the county, city, or local municipality once again).
  2. No barrel limits will be placed upon breweries or the taprooms they operate.
  3. Franchise laws will cease to exist between breweries and distributors in the state of Maryland. Relationships between breweries and the distributors they choose to work with will be created and determined through individual/ independent contracts negotiated between the two parties.
  4. There will be no barrel limit to self-distribution for Maryland breweries.
  5. There will no longer be a distinction between brewery classes / licenses (since there are no barrel limits).

(Full Article.)

In short, while there are a lot of details that need be sorted out, this is probably a much-needed — and very public — kick in the pants to realize that brewers should no longer have to ask permission for simply existing.

Evolution Brewing Co. co-founder John Knorr and Comptroller Peter Franchot

The good news is that consumers overwhelmingly seem to support this type of progress and legislative reform, per a recently conducted survey from the Comptroller’s office.

72 percent of respondents said there should be no limits on beer production; while an additional 20 percent said they are too low. The remaining 8 percent said they are either too high as they are or that they are “fine” at current levels.

79 percent of respondents said there should be no sales limits; while 14 percent said these limits are too low. The remaining 7 percent said either they are too high as is or they are “fine” at current levels.

89 percent of respondents expressed disapproval of the buy-back provision in House Bill 1283; while 4 percent said they approved and 6 percent said they had no opinion.

83 percent of respondents said the relationship should be governed by a “negotiated, signed contract”; while 10 said it should be governed by state franchise law and 7 saying they had no opinion on the matter.

72 percent of respondents said there should be no such self-distribution limits, while 18 percent said the limits should be raised. Of those remaining, 7 percent said current law is reasonable, 1 percent said the limits should be lowered and 2 percent said self-distribution should be prohibited altogether in the state.

66 percent of respondents said there should be no take-home limit while 25 percent answered that the existing limit is too low and should be raised. Of those remaining, 8 percent said the existing limit is reasonable, 1 percent said take-home sales in the state should be prohibited altogether and lest than 1 percent said the existing limit is too high and should be lowered.

(Full Article.)

There Is an Opportunity Here

Apparently, I’m just a boat full of metaphors today, because all I want to say here is that the wind is in the sails of the brewers. (I know, I’m terrible.)

And though I hate calling out brewers, I’m only doing so because I care, and I firmly believe they can affect positive change for themselves by banding together more effectively and standing up for each other, not just themselves.

As I said, some of them are doing a fantastic job of this, but more is needed. Ask more tough questions. Push back when you disagree. 

Because whether or not you buy into the work the task force is doing — or you just consider it theater — the 2018 legislative session is going to matter a heck of a lot, and will be influenced by what we do today.

Be your own champions — so many of us are already cheering for you.

Now, it’s time to pile in the car and head to Baltimore.