My name is Mike Halker and I own Due South Brewing Company and I brew beer for a living. I’m also the President of the Florida Brewers Guild. This is my second year as president and the year before I served on the board of directors. I’m going to attempt to put some perspective on our situation for those of you that are interested. Please be aware, I’m writing this as a guy that cares a great deal about the craft beer industry as a whole, and in particular in Florida. Not as the president of the FBG, but just as a guy in the middle of it all.
I have access to information. Probably as much information as anyone involved in craft beer in Florida, concerning the current lawsuit and legislative issues in Tallahassee. Not that I’m special, I’m just in the right place at the right time. I see many opinions from attorneys that have read the formal petition. While I appreciate the fact folks are paying attention, deciphering the legal language in the filing is a fairly one-dimensional view of what’s happening. I’m no lawyer so I don’t pretend to understand all the legal stuff. Fortunately for me, there are people who are very good at what they do who are paid to decipher it and explain it to me. This information then becomes part of a much larger picture. The big picture is a complicated one, and there is a group of us, some paid and some volunteers, who spend a lot of time trying to make sense of it all. We meet frequently, have conversations with Representatives and Senators, discuss issues with national Brewers Association people, look at what other states have done and are doing, and do our best to formulate a plan that makes sense. Feasibility is the key. You don’t drag a kayak out into the surf off Daytona thinking you’re going to Spain. Your plan must at least have an opportunity for success.
I have heard comments like, “Here we go again. Every year the craft brewers are fighting in Tallahassee. When will this be over?” The short answer is, probably never. Keep in mind there are people who are paid lots of money to push us around. If they don’t come after us, they have no job. It’s doubtful the day they leave us alone will come anytime soon. Their tactic is primarily to inundate us with garbage so we spend our time fighting for what we have rather than trying to accomplish something new. If they keep us distracted with things like keeping our tasting rooms open, they think we won’t be attempting to get things like limited self-distribution or franchise law reform. In the past the FBG has been a fairly weak, somewhat disorganized group. Those days are over. If the FBWA would have pulled what they did last session a few years ago, they would have succeeded. There was simply no one at the watch. No mas. When they pulled this stunt with the lawsuit, Josh notified us minutes after it was filed. The FBG board of directors were in conversations immediately.
So let’s briefly look at how it goes down. The FISA files a lawsuit against the state challenging the law that allows breweries to have tasting rooms. We find out and begin to strategize. Keep in mind, this is a fluid thing. It’s not bang, this thing happens and bam, this is what we do about it. No. A bit later the Retail Federation jumps in. Now we have a completely new issue to consider. Remember, we’re not just figuring out what we need to do to respond, we’re also trying to figure out the motivation behind it. Why did it happen in the first place? Who stands to gain? What are the ramifications to our short and long term plans? While we’re contemplating the issue, the FBWA and BIF, wholesaler groups, jump in. Now things are taking shape and we’re beginning to see how it’s coming together. In the meantime, we’re not the only ones involved. They’re not attacking us directly, they’re attacking the state. Now the state must defend itself and we certainly want to be involved as we’re obviously the ones fundamentally affected. We’re pissed off, the state is pissed off, the ABT is pissed off, the legislators are pissed off and basically everyone that drinks craft beer in Florida is pissed off. I’ve had plenty of other folks from around the country contact me. They’re pissed off too.
Which brings me to another point. During the time all of this is going on, keep in mind we’re staring down the barrel of another legislative session. We’ve been planning our strategy for the past year getting ready to head to Tallahassee and do our thing and we’ve got this in our lap. And the biggest burden of all? It’s public. Not only do we have to address the situation itself, but we have to manage the shitstorm taking place on Facebook, on Twitter, on all of the blogs by craft beer folks, attorneys, etc., and in practically every tasting room and craft beer bar in the state. Most folks are behind us and support us tremendously and it’s fantastic. Then one guy says “screw you guys if you don’t go for the throat and get self-distribution, franchise reform, and whatever else, like Washington did.” As though this were an option. Yes, it’s a crock that we still don’t have 64 oz. growlers. Some folks seem to attribute it to the weakness of the FBG. And, as I admitted earlier, it wasn’t that long ago that the FBG was weak. But our prior weakness has little to do with the reason we don’t have 64 oz. growlers. It’s the strength of our opponent. The reason the growler law hasn’t passed is simply, they didn’t want it to. And the reason it’s going to pass this year is not because we’re so much stronger, it’s that we’ve successfully painted them as the bastards they are. Not by ourselves mind you, but by engaging the craft beer supporters in Florida. They came out of the woodwork to back us up and were a noisy, effective bunch. Believe me, after last session, there are legislators walking around the capital right now thinking, “Just don’t piss off the craft brewers.”
Now back to our opponents. The FBWA is led by a lobbyist named Mitch Rubin. Mitch gets paid lots of money to go to Tallahassee and represent a bunch of Bud distributors and one Miller distributor. This may change due to the Reyes / Gold Coast deal but you get the picture. Mitch has convinced the distributors that Bud and Miller are going to come into Florida and open up a brewery on every corner to bypass the three-tier system if they don’t protect themselves against it with new laws. He contends, “what’s good for the craft brewers is also good for Bud so you better watch yourself”. Think about it, what else does Mitch have to fight for? Every time he says the sky is falling, they write him another check. I’d turn into Chicken Little too, wouldn’t you? Sure, Bud sales are down a bit, but look how much additional revenue they’re making from craft. The three-tier system is firmly in place so no issues there. Brewer / distributor contracts are exactly the way they want them. Hell, even gas prices are down. What more could these people want? So why should Mitch exist? He’s convinced them (and he’s not entirely wrong, just mostly) that AB INBEV, the foreign company that owns Bud now, is completely driven by the dollar, doesn’t care about the wholesalers and they’re just waiting for the right time to swoop in and take the beer industry away from the distributors. Again, whatever is good for craft is good for Bud. So his job is to tie things up and make sure the only moves made in the industry are to close the hole in the law that would allow Bud and / or Miller to open a million breweries in Florida (no, it’s never happened before in the history of mankind) so the distributors don’t get their cut. When we proposed allowing 64 oz. growlers he decided to attach language to our bill that would close these holes. In doing so, it would have been very detrimental to craft brewers. So we killed the whole thing.
To that end, I’d also like to point out to those that think we should all sit down, play nice, and come up with a compromise for everything, this simply isn’t an option. We want different things. We have tried discussions with these people. It doesn’t work. I can’t go into detail but suffice it to say I won’t make the same mistake twice. That horse is dead, enough beating already.
Another thing to remember here, our budget to fight this last year was about $20,000. Just one member of the FBWA pays dues more than twice that amount. These guys have tons of money and money talks when it comes to politics. Money (at least in my experience) doesn’t buy politicians. But it grants access. It’s like, “Here’s a check to help you get reelected, now could I have a few minutes to explain my position on (insert bill here)?” We couldn’t write very many checks. They could write as many as they wanted. So when you say “Go to Tallahassee and get self-distribution!”, this is what we’re up against. It’s not like they argue their side, then we argue our side, then a judge decides in someone’s favor. We plead our case in front of a committee, then the bill sponsor pleads it to the other legislators, then there’s a vote. Some folks are passionate about the industry and try to help us. Senator Latvala and Representative Young are good examples. Some folks could care less and just vote the way their buddy across the aisle does. And some folks vote a particular way due to political influence. Senator Stargell was practically crucified last year for going against us. She brought the bill in as a favor to Senate President Gaetz. He did it as a favor for Lewis Bear, a big Bud distributor in the panhandle. Now she’ll forever be known as a craft hater but she did what she had to. The Senate President has quite a bit of power and when he says to introduce a bill, it’s political suicide not to. She simply had no idea what she was getting herself into. Poor thing.
So now here we are this year. There are many more brewers in Florida, many of them with opinions on what our priorities should be. We have better relationships with legislators, many of whom will tell us how it is, some of whom we have no idea what they’ll do, and some of whom have long standing relationships with our opponents. Are we in better shape than we were last year? Certainly. Not only are we more organized and connected, but the elections were good for us for the most part. Even still, it is a process. And there are no guarantees. And our funds are limited. And our opponents aren’t. We will certainly do our best. Since the lawsuit has come up our short term objectives have shifted a bit but we’re still focused. We are confident that we can make due with whatever resources we have, all the while wishing we had more. If we had more we could accomplish more. Some day we will have more.
I hope this clears a few things up and sheds a little light on how all of this is going down. I won’t give up our strategy or tell any secrets but I do think folks have a right to know how things work behind the scenes, even if they can’t be privy to exactly what’s going on. It’s should be an interesting ride this year to say the least.
I’m a Florida craft beer guy through and through and I’m going to do my best to make a difference this year, along with the other members of the board, and Josh and Melissa. We’re a pretty sharp bunch and I’ve got a lot of confidence in these people. I hope that before it’s all over you will too.
And please keep in mind the next time you jump on the FBG on Facebook or Twitter or where ever, these people are taking their free time (of which they have little) and using it for the greater good of the craft beer industry of Florida. Some of us have a lot at stake, an eye on the big picture and are in it for the long haul. While we won’t reach our goals overnight, we will reach them.
Thank you all for your support and I hope someday in the near future to write you again, to deliver good news.
Ps. If you’ve read this all the way down to here, do me a favor and pat yourself on the back for me. It’s an indication that you truly care and it’s folks like you that keep folks like me going. Cheers.