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Suddenly, craft brewers are getting their way in NC

For years, craft brewers in North Carolina have tried to change archaic rules that prevented them from growing like other small businesses. For years, their pleas were ignored by N.C. Republicans who should have been pro-business but instead were pro-money — as in the money that was donated by the powerful beer and wine wholesalers lobby.

Now lawmakers not only are about to give the craft beer industry some of the freedom it deserves, they’re ditching other out-of-date rules in a flurry of measures that will benefit the many North Carolinians who enjoy the craft boom.

What’s changed? North Carolina’s craft beer industry has not only grown, it has grown up.

This week, that was reflected in the startlingly easy path of House Bill 363, which changes a rule that forces growing craft brewers to turn over their distribution operations to wholesalers. The rule currently applies to brewers that produce more than 25,000 barrels a year; HB 363 would raise that number to 100,000 barrels, which would allow more brewers to have the same control over distribution that other N.C. businesses have. Tim Kent, executive director of the N.C. Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association, told the Winston-Salem Journal that the bill was a “win-win” for all parties involved. Make no mistake — the bill represents N.C. brewers getting much of what they fought for, and much of what wholesalers have previously fought against.

HB 363 cleared the N.C. House last month with a 104-8 vote, and an N.C. Senate committee recommended the bill this week. It’s not the only win for craft brewers. The N.C. budget also is likely to include almost two dozen measures the industry has advocated for, including allowing customers to get more than one beer per person at taprooms, allowing customers to bring dogs into many taprooms, and allowing beer to be served in more places, such as bingo games.

Why the surge of brewer-friendly measures? A lawsuit helped lead to the wholesaler bill, but in large part change has come because craft brewers have learned to play the political game. No longer are they just a plucky band of entrepreneurs who hoped public opinion would pull lawmakers to their side. Now they’re organized, and their lobbying arm — the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild — has grown from a volunteer organization into a more muscular operation that delivers a clear and persistent message to lawmakers.

It also helps that the craft industry has become too big to ignore. There are 312 craft brewers in North Carolina, up from 84 just five years ago, according to the guild. Craft brewers have a 10 percent market share in volume in North Carolina, but make up 22 percent of the dollars spent on beer. Small breweries have helped cities like Charlotte and Raleigh strengthen their brands with young professionals, and they’re helping revitalize small towns across the state.

The distribution structure still could be better for NC brewers — there’s no valid reason to force any business to use a wholesaler. We hope NC lawmakers continue to look for ways to treat this $2 billion industry fairly. Now, at least, brewers seem to have their attention.