Brewing Change: In first Reform on Tap meeting, panelists lay out what's at stake for MD brewing

Politicians in suits and brewers in T-shirts sat side by side in a conference room on the Johns Hopkins University campus, beckoned here by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.

"We've got some stiff competition," Franchot told the group in his opening remarks, "in Virginia, in New York, and all these other big states that are significantly ahead of us, but I hope that this task force is gonna create a series of recommendations that's gonna put Maryland in first place."

The comptroller convened this task force, known as Reform on Tap, in the wake of a bill passed in Annapolis that started as a way to bring a new Guinness brewery to Baltimore County and ended, some brewers and industry officials believe, handicapping the state's growing craft beer industry. This group of legislators, beer makers, and industry insiders is here to find ways for Maryland beer to grow.

In its first meeting, Reform on Tap members heard from tourist boosters and heads of brewing associations about how great things were for the state's beer brewers. And what stands to be lost—Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland, recalled how a member of Virginia's Department of Agriculture tried to poach Maryland brewers on the State House floor not long after the bill, known as HB1283, passed.

"We've come on the radar because of that bill, for better or worse," he told the task force.

In his presentation, Atticks offered some impressive figures related to the brewing: a projected $925 million in economic impact, roughly $11 million in excise taxes to the state, tens of thousands of tourists flocking to visit the state's 71 breweries. Somewhere between 7.6 and 11.5 percent—the figure depends on the source—of all beer sold in Maryland is brewed here. In other states, he said, that figures is down to 2 to 4 percent. But in the "benchmark states," like North Carolina, California, and Colorado, it's up to 15 to 18 percent.

In those states, "craft beer is having a huge economic impact through wholesale, through retail," he said, i.e. there are fewer restrictions on how brewers can sell their product.

Allison Burr-Livingstone, the executive vice president of public affairs for Visit Baltimore, discussed how the city is marketing its restaurant and brewery scene to tourists. Twenty-eight percent of the money visitors spend is on food and drinks, she said.

But perhaps the biggest impact of the craft brewing boom is felt further away, in places far smaller than Baltimore. In remarks that would surely make every Prohibitionist spin in their grave, Jacob R. Day, mayor of Salisbury, said craft beer has helped turn around his town.

For years, he said, city leadership would ignore the wants of the sizable student population at Salisbury University, and their downtown suffered for it.

"That's what our city was, at its core, at its heart, a place where people wouldn't spend time," he said.

But that's changing now, in part because of businesses like Evolution Brewing Company and its large group of restaurants. Now more people are visiting downtown for festivals that feature craft brewers pouring pints. There are more places serving craft beer, craft coffee, locally sourced food, and so on. And more people are choosing to live there, too. The city's median age dropped to 28.2 years old, while most counties on the Eastern Shore are seeing it rise; Salisbury recently sold several parking lots that are slated for mixed-use developments.

"I believe that the cycle of growth today is absolutely tied to place, to craft, to quality," he said.

Given Salisbury's location, Day is keenly aware of what's going on in Delaware and Virginia, and like Atticks, he knows those states are trying to lure businesses away and "evaporate" recent successes.

"I believe that is what we're risking," he said.

Late last week, Gov. Larry Hogan allowed HB1283 to become law without his signature.

In a letter to House Speaker Michael Busch explaining his decision, Hogan wrote that he wanted the Guinness brewery, "a welcome economic development project," to move forward, but cautioned about the ways this legislation could hurt "Maryland's burgeoning craft beer industry—hampering the economic growth, job creation, and tax revenue it produces."

He urged the General Assembly to consider modernizing the laws around brewing beer.

"It is clear from the debate surrounding this bill that Maryland's beer laws—dating back to the end of Prohibition—are in need of reform as they threaten to reverse the incredible growth of our state's craft brewing industry," he wrote. "Failing to do so will possibly force new and existing breweries to look outside of Maryland to expand their operations."

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