June 26, 2013

Beer fest organizer: We won't come back to Maine

The owner of Shelton Bros. says he lost money on the popular weekend event and says state liquor laws need updating.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

A large crowd, which included tourists and brewers from all over the world, gathers at The Festival at The Portland Company on Saturday, June 22, 2013. The owner of Shelton Bros. says he lost money on the popular weekend event and says state liquor laws need updating or The Festival won't come back to Maine.

Jill Brady / Staff Photographer

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 reflect how out of date Maine's liquor laws are with regard to handling beer festivals, said Dan Kleban, spokesman for the Maine Brewers Guild.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?'"

(Continued on page 2)

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