ATLANTA — Brewers of craft beer hope their fans will help convince Georgia lawmakers to allow the sale of limited amounts for drinkers to take home.
“I like to buy vegetables from farmers and like to buy bread from bakers, and it doesn’t seem fair to customers that they can’t buy beer from brewers,” said Crawford Moran, a brewmaster at 5 Seasons Brewing.
State law prohibits brewers from selling packaged beer directly to consumers, except for a recent provision that allows brewpubs that offer food to sell beer for on-site drinking.
The law goes back to Prohibition. A three-tiered system of brewers, wholesalers and retailers was designed as a reform to minimize overpouring and to protect smaller brands from being squeezed out of the market by limiting entities to one tier.
Georgia beer distributors say the system has worked well and that drinkers have gained from it.
“The three-tier system has been beneficial to consumers because it allows all brewers, large and small, equal access to consumers,” said Martin Smith, the assistant director of the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association.
As craft brewers have sprung up in recent years, they have chaffed at the system’s constraints. They pushed the Legislature to allow brewpubs that serve food to serve their beers by the drink, like any other restaurant. They won the ability for brewers to give limited samples for free – only being able to charge up to $12 for the glass mug.
Now, they are pushing to sell bottled beverages that can be taken home. Senate Bill 63 would cap sales at 144 ounces, equal to a 12-pack or a couple of growlers.
Chris Herron, the CEO of the Creature Comforts brewery in Athens, says takeout purchases would increase demand, with visitors sharing the beer with their friends.
Distributors and retailers would also see their sales increase, he predicts.
Herron says the potential goes further than added sales. His company would hire two or three extra employees, as would each of the two dozen other craft brewers in the state.
Beyond that is the added impact on the local economy. Craft brewing is a tourist draw to brewers’ communities, and “bottle releases” of new varieties have been known to attract a thousand or more aficionados, he said.
However, Smith says the legislation wouldn’t expand the sales “pie” but merely alter how big each slice is.
“It does not create jobs; it does not create new funds or capital,” he said. “It simply shifts existing jobs and revenue.”
The bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, where several members are co-sponsors.
Three marketing professors agree with the brewers and dismiss warnings that the three tiers will crumble, leaving consumers with little choice after the brewing giants take command of the industry.
“I hardly think that buying a 12-pack is a threat,” said Barbara Coleman of Georgia Regents University.
Chris Lemley of Georgia State University wonders why anyone is fighting the proposal.
“If I were a distributor, I would probably like it,” he said. “It’s a good sampling technique because it gets people to buy the first 12-pack.”
The University of Georgia’s Sundar Bharadwaj notes that many industries experience tension along the distribution channels.
He points to companies such as Amazon, Tesla, Uber and even McDonald’s whose novel approaches to distribution disrupted their industries.
Distribution channels only crumble if there is no value added by each link in the chain, he said.
But since all consumers are not alike, there are opportunities for each tier to cater to needs of at least some customers, such as the convenience of a retailer, the merchandising and logistics economies of scale from the wholesaler and, of course, the product from the brewer.