Brewery owners, restaurants spar over how to fix N.J.’s licensing rules
The long-running row over whether the brewing industry is being hampered by onerous regulations continued Thursday during a committee meeting discussing laws for brewery license holders.
Brewery owners, bartenders and restaurateurs attended the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee hearing, where lawmakers heard a discussion of three bills — one to codify new rules and regulations for breweries, another that would increase the number of events, which breweries could hold and permit annually to coordinate with food vendors, and a third to allow license holders to hold an unlimited number of special events on-site while creating a farm brewery license.
In Pennsylvania and New York, breweries are allowed, sometimes required, to sell food. But current New Jersey law limits breweries to prepackaged chips and crackers. Organizers of private events must bring their own food and take it with them on departure.
Breweries are also limited to 25 public events per year and 52 private parties and have limited advertising. Current laws also limit how much beer they can brew in a year.
“I try to run my business the way we see it in our neighboring states. You have far more privilege than all these bills ask for,” said Scott Wells of Bolero Snort Brewery. “We’re just trying to find ways to grow our brand so we’re doing what we were designed to do.”
Some of the bills discussed Thursday overlap, but all aim to increase the number of events a brewery can host; Allow breweries to sell coffee, other small snacks, and soft drinks; and eliminate the requirement to offer visitors a tour before drinking on-site.
Breweries in the state have accused the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department of introducing regulations that limit the industry’s growth. Death of the Fox in East Greenwich is suing the ABC over a July ruling that placed 18 restrictions on craft breweries, including restricting public events. The rules were enacted in 2019 to even out competition between restaurants and breweries, but were delayed due to the pandemic.
“What we have here are regulations that have been imposed on small businesses — all small business regulations impede their ability to do business, and no reason has been given as to why limited breweries are being singled out as someone who must have these regulations,” said Jim Graziano of the New Jersey Brewers Association. “This proposed legislation solves the problem.”
Breweries have exploded in the Garden State over the past decade – from 25 in 2012 to more than 140 today. The Battle for State Regulations intensified after meeting spokesman Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said in September he wanted to investigate what’s holding back breweries’ growth.
Brewery owners on Thursday pointed to some regulations that irk them — like a playoff baseball game watch party counted as a private event or a limited time to report that you want to host an event.
They emphasized that some fundraisers, open mic events, and quiz nights make them a part of their community. Restrictions on events only hurt small business owners, they said.
“We’re already booked at 23 out of 25 events, so we’re not able to do any last-minute fundraisers like we did this year to raise $15,000 for Ukraine,” said Jeremy Lees , who runs Flounder Brewing Co. in Hillsborough.
Restaurateurs said they see breweries as unfair competition.
Alicia Miller, a bar and restaurant owner, said two liquor licenses cost her more than $400,000 each. She said she’s not afraid of competition but “don’t welcome an easy way to do it.” Brewery licenses start at $1,250 and go up to $7,500 depending on how much beer they brew.
“If breweries wanted to be open, they had to have tasting rooms. We said OK, then the laws were confusing, that there were all these gray areas, so we made it more specific,” she said. “What’s the difference between a bar and a restaurant and a brewery when they’re allowed to do everything I’m allowed to do?”
Dana Lancellotti, president of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, which represents both restaurants and breweries, called the bills a “very difficult and complicated issue.” While supporting operations that come together to sell food at breweries, the group believes there should continue to be a clear distinction between the parameters of a restaurant’s alcohol license and a brewery license.
“This cannot be reduced in a day, but it will happen if we are not careful to protect that,” she said. “We stand behind the protection of those who have invested tremendous effort, time, money and many things in their lives to afford these licenses.”