Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said his chamber would pull back some brewery rules issued by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control in June. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Assembly lawmakers are preparing to reexamine rules set in July that owners say have hamstrung New Jersey’s breweries, an undertaking likely to lead to brewery owners butting heads with bar and restaurant owners already invested in costly liquor licenses.
“One of the things that we’re going to have to do is look at the things that are impediments to growth, impediments to success,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said Monday during a tour of the Flying Fish Brewery in Somerdale.
Brewery owners have railed against the restrictions, which also curtailed the advertising breweries can do on social media, since their enactment, charging the restrictions make New Jersey’s brewing industry uncompetitive with neighboring states.
Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York allow, and in some cases require, their breweries to sell food. New Jersey law only allows breweries to provide token food items like chips or crackers, all of which must be prepackaged. Private or social event hosts — but not the breweries themselves — are permitted to bring food but must take it with them when they leave. New Jersey also limits the number of events a brewery can host.
“We’re limited to 25 events a year. Death of the Fox is open 360 days a year, so that equates to 6% of the days that we’re open, we’re allowed to have entertainment. It’s not right,” said Chuck Garrity, founder and president of Death of the Fox Brewing, which is based in Clarksboro.
The looming fight over brewery regulation coincides with the 10-year anniversary of a law, sponsored by Coughlin (D-Middlesex), that allows breweries to sell alcohol on their premises. New Jersey’s brewing industry has grown almost by a factor of six in the intervening decade, the number of breweries statewide jumping from 25 in 2012 to 141 today.
But owners have warned the new restrictions could push them across state borders or put them out of business.
“People ask, ‘Oh, are you worried about breweries opening up and competition?’” Garrity said. “Absolutely not in New Jersey. I’m worried about other states that can give their customers a great experience. We can’t.”
The event restriction, which limits breweries to 25 on-site events per year with some exceptions, is among the most onerous.
Any attempt to loosen brewery rules is likely to face opposition from restaurateurs and bar owners who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars or more into costly and scarce retail consumption liquor licenses and fear breweries, which operate under cheaper and more available brewery licenses, would start competing over the same customers.
Amanda Stone, director of government affairs for the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, did not return a request for comment.
Brewery owners have said they don’t seek to emulate bars or restaurants, insisting their establishments provide an altogether different experience.
Coughlin provided few specifics of how the state would seek to change brewery rules on Monday, though he signaled lawmakers would at least move to loosen the restrictions of food service.
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), who joined the speaker’s tour Monday, has already introduced a bill that would overrule a state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control regulation that requires breweries to provide a tour to customers before serving them alcohol.
That move may dovetail with a broader push to reform the state’s liquor license laws, particularly around retail licenses — critics say the cost of licenses has kept poorer residents out of the industry — but details about that push, along with its fate, remain murky.
Coughlin said the current licensing system is “not going to change overnight.”
“That’s not something that happens fast. I’m not sure it changes at all,” he said.
But, in a welcome sign to brewers, Coughlin added the Legislature would seek to change some brewery rules immediately.
“We just feel like we need to have a hand on the wheel of the business, and right now we don’t,” said Frank Rio, president of Flying Fish Brewing Company.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.