RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers considering two bills are balancing the growing alcohol industry in the state with the dreaded “T” word — tradition.
The first bill before lawmakers is H.B. 500, which underwent a major change before being approved by the House. Under current law, any brewery selling over 25,000 barrels must turn over distribution rights to private, state-sanctioned wholesalers who get to control the product as well as its pricing. As originally written, H.B. 500 would have increased the cap from 25,000 to 200,000 barrels, but legislators stripped the provision from the bill before passing it to the Senate in April, a move breweries claimed was prompted by wholesalers who don’t want to lose their jobs. The matter is currently under lawsuit, after Charlotte breweries sued the state, claiming the caps are a violation of the state constitution.
The proposal comes at a time when the alcohol industry, especially the production of craft beer, is spiking in North Carolina. According to Our State magazine, North Carolina saw the second-largest increase in barrels of beer produced in the country in 2015. Since 2010, the number of craft breweries has more than tripled, from 45 breweries in 2010 to 205 small breweries in the state today. The economic impact of the industry comes to $1.2 billion, $300 million of which comes from annual wages for the 10,000 people employed in the production of craft beer.
If H.B. 500 passes, the small and micro breweries springing up all over the state will be allowed to sell their product on the farm that supplies the base plant and sell their beer at up to two additional locations other than the brewery itself. The bill also makes amendments to the home production of beer that allow for it to be crafted for contests.
The second bill, S.B. 155, also known as the “Brunch Bill,” makes comprehensive changes to distilleries, the first of which has to do with production. Currently, distilleries such as Cape Fear Vineyard & Winery in Elizabethtown are only allowed to sell one bottle of spirits annually to consumers. If the bill passes, the limit would be raised to five.
Alex Munroe, owner of Cape Fear Vineyard & Winery, said the change would make a big difference for his business.
“It’s a pretty dramatic increase, and it would really give us the opportunity to showcase our products,” he said. “We have several different moonshines, for example — apple, blueberry, cinnamon — so if a person comes in, instead of being just limited to blueberry, they can try all our varieties. Otherwise, it’s like walking in an ice cream parlor and all they have is vanilla.”
Lawmakers are also poised to give distilleries more freedom in marketing. Included in S.B. 155 is the establishment of a spiritous liquor special event permit, which would allow distilleries to offer free samples of up to one ounce at places like shopping malls, as well as at events like trade shows and festivals.
The bill also allows for off-site storage of alcohol, which would mean being able to store pallets of wines and spirits at the same location from which they are shipping, dramatically simplifying distribution. Munroe said the changes could mean expansion to the point that he would be able to add 10 more jobs to his business.
Called the “Brunch Bill” because of its association with time, the bill would give municipal and county governments the freedom to allow the sale of alcohol at 10 a.m., two hours earlier than the noon starting time currently imposed on alcohol retailers like restaurants.
“I think it’s a great thing,” said Elizabethtown’s Robin Summerlin, a leading voice behind the push in 2016 for the sale of unfortified beer and wine in White Lake. “People are going to church at all different times these days. Many of them are out by 10 a.m. and want to eat brunch and then supper, and may want to have some type of alcohol.
“I don’t encourage anyone to overdrink,” he stressed. “But I do want people to be able to have a nice meal with alcohol if that’s what they want to do.”
Opponents of the bill argue that North Carolina’s current regulations curb alcohol abuse, which, in turn, decreases social blights like drunk driving, unemployment, and domestic abuse.
“North Carolina is still behind the curve when it comes to alcohol, but this legislation is a step in the right direction,” Munroe remarked.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.