The Quest for Craft Beer Equality: Georgia’s Fight to Thrive

Crowdfunding for brewery law modernization

Drink Features craft beer

In 45 states of this country, you can walk into the on-site taproom of your local brewery and buy a beer. In nearly as many, if you find something you like, you can pick up a six-pack or growler to enjoy in the comfort of your own home. In those 45 states, neither of these liberties is considered exceptional. Rather, they’re obvious. But not so in Georgia.

Along with Mississippi, West Virginia, North Dakota and Hawaii, Georgia is one of only five remaining states that doesn’t allow direct sales of any kind from breweries. Unsurprisingly, the craft beer market suffers as a result—despite the fact that cities such as Atlanta and Athens are home to exceptional brewers, the state operates as a net craft beer importer, with two-thirds of all craft beer consumed there produced outside state lines. The consumers are there, and thirsty. State law, on the other hand, is still rooted in the dark days of prohibition. And if things are going to change, the state’s craft brewers guild is going to need your help.

“For people who visit from outside Georgia, it’s a bit of a shock,” said Nancy Palmer, the Executive Director of the Georgia Craft Brewer’s Guild. “They expect to be able to visit the local brewery and buy a beer. Almost everywhere else in the country, they can.”

Palmer is one of the voices leading Georgia’s charge toward equality and reform of antiquated laws when it comes to the state’s breweries. Heading a young, youth-driven organization, she has the support of Georgia’s burgeoning craft beer scene, perhaps best encapsulated in Atlanta. In Georgia’s biggest city, craft beer is exploding, with restaurants and bars simultaneously coming to the realization that there are exceptional products being produced in their backyard. Drinkers too have flocked to craft beer as they have in so many other large American cities, but there’s a problem: There’s simply not enough locally produced beer to go around, and the law is directly to blame.

“Compared to other states, we rank 44th in terms of economic impact per capita from beer,” Palmer said. “Georgia is the 8th largest state in terms of population, but we’re nowhere close to where we should be in terms of economic impact. If Georgia was average, we would have about 75 breweries statewide. Currently, it’s about 38.”

For reference, that’s fewer breweries than in the greater Asheville, NC area. A single, mid-sized North Carolina city has more breweries than the entire state of Georgia, and certainly more beer-related tourism to boot. The state is literally surrounded on all sides by states with more progressive beer laws: Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida all allow direct sales to consumers at breweries. All Georgians want is the right to stay competitive with their neighbors and help their small businesses thrive.

“There’s a huge financial upside to small breweries being able to sell directly to the public,” Palmer said. “Direct sales would only account for a couple percentage points of total production, but the profit margin is tremendous on those sales and makes all the difference to a small brewery trying to grow and improve their cash flow. That can make or break a new brewery.”

At this point, you’re likely wondering who would reasonably be against legislation to modernize the state’s brewery laws, and the answer is “nobody.” No one would reasonably be against it … and yet, if you look hard enough, you will find them. From the practical (money) to the moral (God hates beer), state legislators will cite what they will as reasons the state shouldn’t embrace a thriving industry, create new jobs and increase tourism. The fact that some of those legislators receive campaign contributions from distributorships should not be confused as somehow related to the issue—to draw that conclusion would be absurd and off-topic in the extreme, so shame on you.

Regardless, the winds of change are blowing. At this point, it’s essentially impossible to deny craft beer’s ascendancy—it’s here. It’s here, whether or not legislators want it and whether or not the mega brewers want it. The people have spoken, and they want more great beer, produced by their own community. Palmer believes that there are few who haven’t come around to the idea at this point.

“In the past, wholesalers may have been against this, but today is a new day,” she said. “The craft brewing industry here has grown to such an extent that I believe the wholesalers know this is part of moving forward. Almost every craft brewery I know of, their distributor wishes they could make more beer, and direct sales will help them do that. We do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.”

As in many other U.S. states, Georgia operates under a strict “three tier” system that regulates the flow of beer from brewery to distributor to retailer. Detractors claim that the brewer’s desire to sell its product on its premises threatens that system, but the Brewers Guild begs to differ. And they can currently point to 45 other states where the system is working just fine. The facts and economic data are all overwhelmingly in favor of modernizing the law—everyone ultimately benefits.

And so, the Georgia Craft Brewer’s Guild is doing something about it, with the monetary help of the community and craft beer advocates around the country. Their currently ongoing Indiegogo campaign is seeking to raise roughly $30,000, all of which will be used for lobbying in the state’s General Assembly. They seek to give their state a fighting chance to compete with its neighbors and allow business to thrive there as it has elsewhere. It’s an exceedingly reasonable request.

“We don’t want to be retailers or distributors,” Palmer said. “What we’re asking for is not new territory. This isn’t an experimental move, it’s something that’s been legal in Florida for 50 years. This is Georgia staying competitive and modern. We’re not asking for a tax break. We’re not asking for grant money. We’re not asking for anything beyond the freedom to sell the product we make.”

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