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Craft beer breweries fight back against Big Beer

Small breweries may be not as mighty as Anheuser-Busch distributors, but they showed a little muscle on Monday by helping to dramatically alter a House bill that could have put some out of business.

“Some folks recognized that there were problems that needed to be addressed,” said Josh Aubuchon, a Holland & Knight lobbyist who represents the Florida Brewers Guild, a consortium that includes 90 local breweries in Florida, including 28 in the Tampa Bay region.

HB 1329, sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, would have legalized half-gallon containers, known as growlers, to sell craft beer. That size is legal in 47 other states, but not Florida. That frustrated breweries like Tampa’s Cigar City, Tampa Bay Brewing Co. and St. Petersburg’s Green Bench Brewing Co., who want the ability to sell their beer in those quantities.

But while Rodrigues’ bill would make that size legal, it also came with many restrictions that those breweries didn’t like, so that only those with certain licenses were eligible. Aubuchon said additional restrictions would have made it difficult for many of his 90 breweries to operate.

So they cheered an amendment that eliminated most of those restrictions that was filed last week by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. and adopted by the House’s Business & Professional Regulation committee on Monday. Under the revised bill, which has two more committees to go, breweries can more easily open tasting rooms and avoid many of the restrictions proposed in Rodrigues’ original bill.

Even though it completely changed his bill, Rodrigues reversed himself and agreed to the changes.

“It’s the legislative process at work,” Rodrigues said afterward. “You get input from the public, you determine what the better policy is, and then you amend it as you go forward.”

Rodrigues said he made the changes after talking with a local brewer.

“He raised legitimate points,” Rodrigues said.

But Jennifer Gratz, who owns the Fort Myers Brewing Co. in an adjacent House district, said he changed his mind after getting flooded with complaints from residents and business owners like her.

“He got an unbelievable amount of phone calls and emails,” Gratz said.

The surge in popularity of craft beer is helping offset the political influence of the large beer distributors, she said. Rodrigues received $3,500 from large beer distributors in the month before he filed his bill.

“There’s no secret where his bill came from,” Gratz said. “Just look at his contributions.”

Although Rodrigues’ bill was changed, Aubuchon said there were still more changes he’d like to see. And the Senate’s Committee on Regulated Industries takes up SB 7120 on Wednesday, which has many of the same regulations that Rodrigues’ earlier bill had.

“We’re watching that one closely,” Aubuchon said.