Beer battle brews; little guys lose

There are a few basic facts that every Wisconsin native knows for certain: 1) The Packers are the greatest team of all time, in any sport, 2) there’s no such thing as a “drinking fountain,” 3) cold weather is God’s way of punishing us for being just a little too awesome, and 4) people around here kinda, sorta like their beer. Indeed, I’ve long argued that instead of that silly cow head, Wisconsin’s official state quarter should have featured George Washington on the front and “good for 25 cents off all tappers, imports, and domestic bottles” on the back.

For better or worse (and too often, unfortunately, it’s worse), people in our state love that sublime elixir of malt, hops, and tender loving care. It’s why the controversy that’s currently simmering over regulations affecting craft brewers might feel a little like a family squabble.

According to craft brewers, new regulations that were included in the recently passed budget will harm their ability to grow and prosper, and they’re none too happy about it.

Of course, because I attended an indeterminate number of UW-Madison house parties in the ‘80s and have therefore effectively conceded my ability to cogently summarize any piece of legislation containing more than five facts, any figure with more than three numerals, or more than two words featuring any combination of the letters “s” and “z,” I’ll let the signatories to a letter
that was sent to Gov. Scott Walker urging a veto of the new regulations sum it up for me:

“The purpose of this letter is to request a veto of language inserted in the budget related to microbreweries and their ability to wholesale each others’ products, own their own taverns, and for contract brewers to purchase beer from other microbreweries.

“There are over 60 craft brewers in Wisconsin. These small and growing businesses help define the very culture of this state. They will be greatly harmed by the new policy – a policy that should have been left out of the budget in the first place.

“We have no business punishing these small entrepreneurs. They hire Wisconsin workers, buy their natural products here, and provide millions of dollars in tourism revenue every year.”

The letter was signed by state senators Glenn Grothman, Pam Galloway, and Bob Jauch and state representatives Evan Wynn, Stephen Nass, Joseph Knilans, and Brett Hulsey. Unfortunately, Walker didn’t listen. He didn’t veto the measure, and it’s now law.

Again, being the survivor of many beer-tinged Wisconsin winters, during which one’s dead brain cells appear to convert to fat cells at an uncannily precise 1-to-1 ratio, the abstruse details of the measure remain a bit fuzzy to me.

I do know that proponents of the provision say it will prevent beer giant Anheuser-Busch from buying up wholesalers and only selling its own products to stores. Not surprisingly, MillerCoors is a supporter of the measure.

And all that seems more or less reasonable on its face. But if this is destined to have a chilling effect on the prospects of small state brewers – and they’re unified in their belief that it will – shouldn’t we take a second look?

Of course, in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I have a clear bias when it comes to beer. While I don’t really care if I ever have another domestic lager, microbrews make me happier than anyone with this much excess eyebrow hair should ever really be. A crusty old bar hand with nine fingers and fewer teeth serving up a porter or stout is a grander sight to me than a buxom spokesmodel hawking a mass-produced light beer.

Then again, Guinness is one of my all-time faves, and that brand is a worldwide force, so clearly I’m not just a knee-jerk supporter of the little guy.

But fair is fair, and to my mind, this just isn’t fair. Let’s allow Wisconsin’s small brewers to have their say. The Legislature should start over with a solution that works for everyone. And the governor should live up to his promise that our state will be open for business for all entrepreneurs, not just those with the deepest pockets.

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