Regulations risk Maine’s reputation as a ‘Craft Beer Destination’

Brewers and beer enthusiasts from across the state gathered to celebrate and taste the craft beers of Maine at the Bangor Beer Festival on Saturday, June 22, 2013. The festival featured 15 craft brewers from across the state.
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Brewers and beer enthusiasts from across the state gathered to celebrate and taste the craft beers of Maine at the Bangor Beer Festival on Saturday, June 22, 2013. The festival featured 15 craft brewers from across the state. Buy Photo
By Chad Lothian, Special to the BDN
Posted July 18, 2013, at 12:59 p.m.

Maine’s growing craft beer industry is fast making our state an East Coast destination for those who want to sample high-quality craft brews. The fact that Portland this year attracted The Festival, a premiere brewfest that showcases breweries from around the globe, shows just how far Maine has come.

The Festival gave a big boost to Maine’s growing craft beer reputation. Unfortunately, it also highlighted a convoluted and illogical patchwork of regulations local brewfest organizers have dealt with for years.

There are three different licenses that can be used to conduct a brewfest. All three have different conditions surrounding them, and the trouble seems to stem from uneven enforcement.

A 48-ounce limit applies to one license, the special taste-testing festival license, but not the other two, the special food and beverage industry taste-testing event license and the off-premise catering license. Still, state liquor regulators will enforce this condition upon brewfests whose licenses aren’t subject to it.

This condition appears to be in place for public safety reasons, so a beer-tasting event doesn’t become a “drunkfest.” But in most situations, the person paying $50 or more for a ticket is really there to experience the beer, not black out from it.

I’ve never gone to a bar and had the bartender shut me off after three pints because there is a 48-ounce- per-day cap, so why is there one at a brewfest? This rule makes selling tickets difficult. Do the math on any festival and you’ll see that you hardly scratch the surface of what’s available with 48 ounces.

Another puzzling regulation bars brewers from pouring their own samples at a brewfest. One of the brewfest licenses specifically says that brewers can pour, but none of them says they can’t.

Another seemingly unrelated section of Maine law does prohibit sales representatives for distilled spirits manufacturers from pouring when sharing product samples.

Regardless of the law’s ambiguity, the no-pouring rule is enforced, and it creates a huge burden on brewfest organizers, as they have to find enough volunteers to pour the beer and help with everything else. Honestly, this makes no sense. Who do you want serving the beer? The person who brewed it, knows it and deals with it every day, or someone who volunteers off the street and most likely has no experience serving alcohol?

I have yet to hear from a brewfest organizer who had a small army of bartenders volunteer to work.

A ticket system for beer samples also gets in the way. Tickets’ sole purpose is to keep people from drinking more than they are supposed to, so this system becomes obsolete if the 48-ounce cap goes away.

Tickets are an added expense for the brewfest, a time waster and, in the end, more trash to clean up. As an attendee, it’s one more thing I have to carry in my pocket and fumble around for to get a sample. And, in the end, how effective is it? Who hasn’t seen people giving away their tickets?

I could go on, but I won’t. There are problems with unclear licensing conditions and unequal enforcement of those conditions.

Out-of-state brewfests like The Festival are going to have issues, and this will drive potential future festivals away from Maine. These unclear regulations also plague our local brewfest organizers who jump through hoops just to keep their festivals from being shut down. This isn’t going to allow the festivals to grow, which, in turn, hurts local businesses.

The Festival was conservatively estimated to bring in $750,000 to the Portland area and could have exceeded that with people staying around for a while.

Beer geeks will travel. We are not afraid to go to the beer, because it doesn’t always get distributed near us. With travel come all the expenses that benefit local businesses. If I’m going to the brewfest on Saturday, why not show up on Friday, spend an extra night in a hotel, take a ride on a local brewbus tour and go out to eat? Local brewfests may not bring in as many travelers, but they do bring out the locals who do the same thing — crash in a hotel, hire a taxi, go out to eat.

We should fix our regulations and enforcement to be accommodating to brewfests. We want our local brewfests to grow, and we want Maine to play host to larger festivals that come from outside the state.

Beer tourism is a big business, and in a state that boasts that it’s “open for business,” I would think we would want to nourish the title of “Craft Beer Destination.”

Chad Lothian of Old Town is a craft beer enthusiast and home brewer. Read his blog, “If My Coaster Could Talk,” on bangordailynews.com.

https://bangordailynews.com/2013/07/18/opinion/contributors/regulations-risk-maines-reputation-as-a-craft-beer-destination/ printed on July 10, 2014