Craft brewing has grown like few industries in Maine, so much so that high-quality, locally made beers are becoming one of the state’s calling cards, perhaps just a step or two below lobster and moose.
And the demand for craft beer – and for legitimately local experiences – show no sign of ebbing, nor do the skill, creativity and ambition that have allowed Maine brewers to gain national renown. By all indications, the tremendous growth will continue, as long as it is allowed to.
Which bring us to L.D. 579, a bill that would clarify Maine law to allow breweries to transfer beer between multiple facilities, a common-sense change that nonetheless met resistance at a hearing Monday.
Transferring beer between a manufacturer’s own facilities is already legal under federal law. Maine law, however, is silent on the issue.
That has led to confusion among Maine breweries. Even though many breweries transfer beer as a regular practice, and have for years, they have been given conflicting information on its legality from state regulators, according to the Maine Brewers’ Guild, which testified on behalf of the bill. Some of the breweries have plans that depend on transfers, and wanted the gray area made black and white before proceeding.
However, the Maine Beer and Wine Distributors, Anheuser-Busch and the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations testified against the bill, saying it could disrupt Maine’s liquor distribution system, particularly if people own stakes in multiple breweries.
That’s a minor point, and hardly the bill’s true intention. It shouldn’t be allowed to be a fatal factor, and it appears that Garrett Mason, R-Lewiston, the Senate chairman of the committee hearing the bill, agrees – he said a group of stakeholders should be able to work through the disagreement.
That’s good news, as the small businesses that make up the craft brewing industry need transfers to maintain flexibility. With transfers, they can do the bulk of their brewing – and canning and bottling – at one site, while maintaining smaller satellite facilities with less overhead that nonetheless offer a full range of products.
That’s what fast-growing Bissell Brothers Brewing Co. wants to do with its planned second location in Milo, the small town in Piscataquis County where the brewery’s owners grew up.
That’s a model that could work for the many small towns in rural Maine that could not support a full-scale operation like the one Bissell Brothers operates on Thompson’s Point in Portland, and which have so far been left out of the craft beer boom.
That boom has brought Maine more than 90 breweries, up from just 34 in 2011. Craft beer now employs 1,500 Mainers and generates nearly half a billion dollars in revenue. Still, new brands and old alike are expanding, bringing fresh energy and new ideas to the marketplace.
Across the country, fans of craft beer – a small but fast-growing portion of beer drinkers – know the names of Maine brewers, and they come here to enjoy them. According to the Maine Office of Tourism, 35 percent of visitors visited a craft brewery or brewpub.
Maine craft beer has come a long way, yet it still has room to grow. Lawmakers should clarify the Maine law on transfers, then ask what else it can do to help.