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Mouthing Off

Trouble's brewing: Late last year Tara Dunn, co-owner of Great Divide Brewing Company, and Jeff Mendel, part-owner of Tabernash Brewing Company, got together to form for Colorado what several other states already have: an organization of brewers. Its purpose would be to serve as an information clearinghouse, to promote Colorado beers and to get involved in industry-related legislation.

Little did they know that mere weeks after the Colorado Brewers Guild was born, the 36-member group would be knee-deep in HB 1168, a bill written by Dave Reitz, director of the Colorado Division of Liquor Enforcement, that passed through the state House a week ago and now awaits a vote in the Senate. The measure--seven pages long and as easy and exciting to read as a church bulletin written in Chinese--for the most part addresses the licensing required by brewpubs. Until now, brewpubs have held three: a manufacturer's license, a wholesaler's license and a hotel-and-restaurant license. The last is what enabled the working man to walk into a brewpub at 1 a.m. on a Sunday and carry out a capped jug of beer--a privilege that he could not enjoy at liquor stores or other distributors prohibited from Sunday sales.

And that was a problem, according to Judy Henning, president of the Colorado Beer Distributors Association. "Initially, the brewers thought the distributors were pushing for this bill because we wanted to control all their product and not let them sell it or promote it their way," Henning says. "But that wasn't true. Really, the amount of money we would make from that would not be worth this fight. Heck, we already distribute a large portion of it throughout the state. No, this bill is about leveling the playing field, about protecting the way liquor laws are set up."

According to Henning, Reitz wrote the bill to clarify the legislation passed in 1988 that allowed for brewpubs in the first place. "This was just a matter of time," she says. "You can't have the brewpubs able to do whatever they want. No one was thinking back in '88 that, hey, these guys will have capabilities that are counter to the basic liquor laws."

As it was first written, HB 1168 would have taken away brewpubs' ability to sell suds for off-premise consumption, and the fear was that in the process it would force all beer to go through wholesalers, which would have affected microbreweries as well. Now that some concessions have been made in the form of amendments to the bill, brewpubs (and the microbreweries that were backing them in this conflict, even though they're not affected because they hold only manufacturer's and wholesaler's licenses) can sell sealed containers for off-premise consumption during the same hours as liquor stores (8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday)--and not at all on Sundays. Brewpubs will be allowed to self-distribute 300,000 gallons a year--to put that number in perspective, it's almost twice as much as the world's largest brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Company, sells annually--and they will be given a special brewpub license that allows them to produce up to 1.8 million gallons of beer annually and still do all the things a restaurant can do.

"I don't know if everyone's happy with the amendments or not," says Wynkoop co-owner John Hickenlooper. "I've found that trying to get these brewers together is like trying to herd cats. But I think that it's safe to say that we weren't trying to hold on to the Sunday sales thing, so we're okay with that, and we're fine with the production cap and the self-distribution cap. Personally, I think the amendments made everything a lot more fair."

He adds that it was silly for distributors and brewers to be on opposite sides, anyway. "We should be allies," he says. And Tabernash's Mendel agrees. "I think the main thing we were upset about was that we didn't know anything about this bill," he says. "All of a sudden it was there, and we had to scramble to find out what was going on. We wish the distributors had just come to us and said, 'Here's what we think should be happening.' Then I think we would have been able to understand it from the start."

In anticipation of similar situations emerging in the future, the Guild is working on procuring a lobbyist. "The beer industry here is growing so fast that there's bound to be more of this type of thing," Mendel says. "We'd like to be better prepared for it."

The next issue facing Colorado brewers is that of labeling. Anheuser-Busch has filed a complaint with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms regarding the use of the word "microbrew" by Coors Brewing Co. and Miller Brewing Co., both of which call some of their beers microbrews even though they're brewed in the same buildings as their other beers. "I think this is a matter of integrity," says Mendel. "There's an industry perspective of 'microbrewery' being defined as a brewer that produces 15,000 or less barrels a year. The big guys are a bit above that, I'd say. So it's a matter of public perception. There should be truth-in-labeling laws for any industry, so why not ours?"

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