LINCOLN, Neb. — A political battle over beer is headed for another round.
And there’s hope that this time, it will be more congenial.
Last year, craft brewers and liquor distributors conducted a contentious tug of war, both in the Nebraska Legislature and within the State Liquor Control Commission, over how exactly brews produced by the state’s expanding breweries could be distributed.
That brouhaha ended with a stalemate on the floor of the Legislature, and with the liquor commission adopting, and then withdrawing, its proposed solution.
The Lincoln Journal-Star reports that the two sides have been meeting over the past few months in hopes of hammering out a compromise to clarify state rules.
Representatives of Nebraska’s craft breweries are hopeful that the solution will not blunt the growth of a small but growing industry that now numbers 47 brew pubs and craft breweries.
“We’re still working out the details,” said Gabby Ayala, the executive director of the Nebraska Craft Brewers Association. “We are working very collaboratively with the Liquor Control Commission and our distributor partners on rules to avoid future battles.”
Hobert Rupe, the executive director of the liquor commission, said he hoped to have a new rules proposal by the first of the year.
“Hopefully, it will be a rule that will satisfy both sides,” Rupe said.
The dispute boils down to two words: “At rest.”
State liquor rules require beer to come “at rest” with a distributor, so it can be taxed, before being shipped to a retailer.
Distributors argued that “at rest” meant that beer, both brewed in Nebraska and elsewhere, needed to be trucked to a warehouse and then on to retail locations. To treat in-state brewers differently than out-of-state beer, they argued, guaranteed a lawsuit for not complying with the federal Commerce Clause.
But craft brewers disagreed. They argued that state law was already clear that the “at rest” requirement was different for Nebraska brewers and that the provision was satisfied when their beer was picked up by a distributors’ truck.
Caleb Pollard, who brews beer in the central Nebraska community of Ord, said his Scratchtown beer would be priced out of the market if it had to be shipped 180 miles to his distributor in Omaha, and then back to his customers in central Nebraska and elsewhere.
Pollard said current rules provide some flexibility by allowing a distributor to pick up beer in Ord, then truck it to nearby outlets, without a trip back and forth from Omaha.
While representatives of beer distributors threatened lawsuits last year, craft breweries called their proposals a “job killer” for their small brew pubs and brew houses.
Pollard said both sides are tired of fighting.
“I don’t want to fight with distributors. They’re an important part of what we do,” he said.
Joe Kohout, a lobbyist for the Associated Beverage Distributors of Nebraska, said he’s also hopeful that a compromise can be worked out. But, he added, when you treat an in-state brewer differently than an out-of-state brewer, it risks a violation of interstate commerce laws.
While the state liquor commission is poised to pass new rules, it is unclear what the State Legislature might do with the issue.
Last year, state Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, who heads the committee that oversees liquor laws, introduced a bill seen as friendly to beer distributors. But he pulled Legislative Bill 632 off the agenda after a pro-craft brewer amendment was adopted.
Larson did not return phone calls and messages left seeking comment on his plans.
But Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood, who sponsored the amendment that helped craft brewers, said she is ready to support the industry again if a new bill, and a new fight, erupts at the Statehouse.
“They are entrepreneurs that deserve our protection,” Blood said.
And they’re a growing lot.
State records indicate that 50 craft breweries or brew pubs are registered but that three of the breweries listed have closed. At least three other breweries, in Omaha, Lincoln and Scottsbluff, are not on the list but expect to open soon.
In 2016, sales of Nebraska-brewed beer topped 1 million gallons for the first time. That was more than double the quaffing of local suds from 2010.
The state now has breweries in many smaller towns and cities, including Imperial, Ohiowa, Valentine, Taylor and McCook.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by Omaha World-Herald.