The owner of the company that held a major international craft beer festival in Portland last weekend says he would not come back to Maine unless the state laws governing such events change.
Dan Shelton, owner of Shelton Bros., a Massachusetts-based beer importer, said he lost money on the Portland festival, and found the state laws governing beer festivals confusing and “fetishistic.”
“We really liked the venue,” he said. “We had very enthusiastic festival goers, and throughout town we had lots of support. It’s just a nice place. A lot of things were great about it, but it isn’t really worth it in a lot of financial ways, or in terms of the amount of effort we had to put in to make it work.”
The Festival, as it was called, drew 2,184 people to the Portland Co. Complex Friday and Saturday. Tourism officials have estimated that the event pumped at least $750,000 into the local economy.
Shelton, along with his lawyer and the employee who organized the festival, detailed Tuesday the tangle of red tape they say they got caught in by holding the event in Portland. Issues ranged from inappropriate behavior by volunteers serving beer – some were caught drinking and trying to steal rare beers Saturday night – to being forced to donate to a charitable cause to get a license to hold the event.
“Now we are all for charitable stuff,” Shelton said. “We give money when we can to lots of different causes. If we have any extra money, we’re happy to give it out and we have done so, but to be told that you have to, especially when we were losing money, it doesn’t seem right.”
The troubles faced by Shelton Bros. reflect how out of date Maine’s liquor laws are with regard to handling beer festivals, said Dan Kleban, spokesman for the Maine Brewers Guild. He called the laws “a mishmash of statutory provisions, none of which are entirely clear, that are subject to enforcement in different ways.”
The problem, Kleban said, “is really coming to a head now, I think, just because the popularity of craft beer in general has kind of fostered the growth of the number of festivals that are being thrown.”
Many of the issues arose because the event was licensed as a catered event, not as a beer festival. The catering license was the only liquor license the importer was able to use because of the quirks of state law.
“A catered event has to be served by the caterers,” explained Lt. Scott Ireland, head of the Maine Liquor Licensing and Compliance Division, a division of the Maine State Police. “You can’t have the brewers serving beer at a catered event.”
The Shelton Bros. hired a local bartending service to be caterer, which gathered and trained the volunteer beer pourers.
Brewers were not allowed to touch the beer. The beer had to be sold to the Shelton Bros.’ distributor, which re-sold it to the bartending service. In addition, the refrigerated truck that held the beer during the festival could not be registered in the local distributor’s name.
Robert Merryman, the Shelton Bros. employee who organized the festival, said he was told brewers, distributors, suppliers and their employees are not allowed to touch the beer because it is considered “undue influence.”
Merryman discovered that even the portable taps used to serve beer could not be the property of brewers or local distributors, so Shelton Bros. had to buy the equipment themselves.
Brewers say they want to be able to pour their own beer at festivals because it allows them to interact with the public. Kleban, one of the owners of Maine Beer Co., said he would talk to someone about his beer, and when they asked to try it, “I’d have to tap a volunteer on the shoulder — and I’m standing right at the tap, mind you – and say ‘Oh, can you pour this person a beer?’ “
Naomi Neville, national sales manager for Allagash Brewing Co., said her biggest issue with Maine beer festivals “is having people pour your beer who really generally don’t know anything about your beer.”
While most of the Portland volunteers were “amazing,” the Shelton representatives said, there were problems. Eighteen volunteers did not show up for the Saturday evening session.
Another issue potentially could have shut down the festival.
Merryman said the liquor enforcement officer who came to the festival pointed out that some of the volunteers were drinking the brews they were pouring, which is illegal. But Merryman said it was impossible to keep tabs on “60 or 70 people we don’t even know.”
Shelton Bros. has also complained about the 48-ounce per person limit on beer consumed at the festival, an issue believed to have affected ticket sales. The importer had to provide drink tickets to festival-goers for 1- and 2-ounce pours totaling 48 ounces to ensure they didn’t go over the limit, the company said.
Ireland said Shelton’s claim that there was a 48-ounce limit is “completely false.” Ireland said another license does have a 48-ounce limit, but not the one Shelton used. The only limitation in the catering license, he said, is that it can’t be used to serve “never-ending” drinks.
“As a catering event, as long as (the public) knows it’s a set price for a certain number of drinks, it could be four drinks, it could be 14 drinks,” Ireland said. “They were not limited in any way to 48 ounces this weekend.”
Ireland said the caterer’s license does require that the festival provide drink tickets to keep track of how much everyone is drinking.
Shelton did not accept that explanation.
“I don’t understand that,” he said. “It seems to me that they’re just saying that people are not allowed to use their own judgment and decide how much they want to drink. They’re asking us to decide how much people can drink for that amount of money.”
Neville called drink tickets “a real pain.”
“People try and hide them from you,” she said. “Even if you have three people behind a tap box, you’re so busy that you just can’t watch everybody put the ticket in the receptacle, and nobody wants to give you the ticket.”
Kleban said a Boston festival sponsored by Beer Advocate that attracts 5,000 people every year allows brewers to pour their own beer, and there are no drink tickets. The only limitation is a two-ounce limit per pour. People can have as many 2-ounce pours as they want.
“That to me, is a much more pleasureable experience for the brewers and more importantly the patrons – the people who are paying the money to come to these festivals and injecting all the money into the economy.”
Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:
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