The way breweries operate in South Carolina could soon change if one bill makes its way through the Statehouse.
A conference committee will meet to negotiate legislation that would allow breweries to serve food. Currently, state law does not allow breweries that serve food to distribute their beer to retail stores (and they cannot brew more than 2,000 barrels per year). As a result, only a handful of restaurants across the state brew their own beer on location. These establishments such as Blue Ridge Brewing in Greenville, Hunter-Gatherer in Columbia, and Gordon Biersch in Myrtle Beach, only offer their beer on site.
On the flip side, breweries also cannot sell food to visitors. Last year state legislators voted to let breweries sell up to three pints of beer to visitors instead of only small samples. However, some of these same brewers complain they cannot serve appetizers to those same visitors as a traditional bar would.
“Right now we can’t do anything with food,” said John Bauknight, who owns the RJ Rocker Brewing Company in Spartanburg.
Enter Stone Brewing. The California-based company has announced plans to start building a new brewery somewhere along the East Coast by the end of the year. Officials in Charleston, Horry, and Lexington counties have tried recruiting the brewery. The problem is that the company also wants to create a restaurant on-site, classifying it as a “brewpub” under South Carolina law and unable to distribute its beer. That almost certainly rules South Carolina out as a future site.
That has led the state Commerce Department to work with several legislators to slowly replace many of South Carolina’s Prohibition-era alcohol laws. Last week, State Rep. Derham Cole, R-Spartanburg, was able to get language added to a bill dealing with alcohol coupons that would effectively eliminate the caps on brewpubs and would allow brewers to sell food on-location. The bill passed the House 88-4 on Wednesday. Senators wanted time to review the change, so they sent the proposal to a conference committee a day later. The committee will likely meet over the next two weeks.
“This bill, like the pint bill passed last year, will create jobs and investment in the South Carolina economy,” Cole said. “Let’s continue building the industry and stay competitive with our neighboring states.”
The proposed bill would raise the current cap on brewpubs from 2,000 barrels per year to 500,000. For comparison, no brewery in South Carolina currently produces more than 15,000 barrels per year and Stone only produces 213,000 at its California location.
There have been some objections. Anheuser-Busch worries the language blurs the line between breweries and those who distribute the beer. The company, which operates a wholesale distributor in Columbia, says it fears the current language would give some craft brewers an unfair edge.
“Each step of the (current) system is heavily regulated and carving out one group the way this amendment proposes to do will create an uneven playing field and give some brewers a competitive advantage over others,” Amanda Wuenscher, a lobbyist representing Anheuser-Busch, wrote to senators last week.
Bauknight, who has represented the South Carolina Brewery Association in the negotiations, said he was confident a compromise could be reached with distributors before the session ends.
While much of the bill’s focus has been on brewpubs, Bauknight said the handful of microbreweries in South Carolina that don’t distribute outside South Carolina would benefit the most. “For a small start-up, it’s huge. I mean, they’d be able to serve food and an unlimited amount of their liquid,” he said.
Tom Hayes contributed to this report