Note: This column contains a clarification below.
The foam hit the fan on Facebook this weekend when a musician posted an item that his gigs at a central Jersey brewery had been canceled, because of a new policy edict from the N.J. Division of Alcohol and Beverage Control.
The item was wrong: Though change is coming, no new policy has been issued.
No matter. The musician’s posting, and subsequent remarks from brewers and others, sparked a panic over how new rules could jeopardize dozens of the small breweries that have cropped up in the state since licensing rules opened the floodgate in 2012.
That law created a new tier of licensing that, for the first time, allowed small breweries to serve beer directly to the public from on-site tasting rooms. It was passed over strong opposition from existing bars and restaurants, who feared competition from the new tasting rooms, whose licenses are far less expensive than typical liquor licenses used by bars.
To answer those concerns, the state laid out rules to prevent brewery tasting rooms from operating like a restaurant. Among other restrictions, tasting rooms are prevented from serving food and
hosting live entertainment.* And, in one of the more troublesome requirements, the law demands that patrons tour the brewery before they are served – even if they’ve taken the tour before.
Indeed, judging by the look of some tasting rooms, I suspect business plans and financing for some breweries are based less on beer production and more on creating a bar-like atmosphere.
But even as breweries have pushed the envelope amid complaints from bars and restaurants, the ABC has dropped the ball on serious regulation. Even now – six years after the tasting room law was enacted – it is still struggling to establish workable rules on those brewery tours, for example.
As the first executive director of the Garden State Brewers Guild (now the New Jersey Brewers Association), I sat in on numerous meetings with the ABC and state legislators, trying to hash out compromise policies that would satisfy both new breweries and existing liquor license holders.
I’m no longer involved n the association, but sources involved in the talks told me the discussions are ongoing. A draft policy has been circulated, but it’s still under discussion.
“It’s still being worked out, and it’s far from finished,” said Eric Orlando, executive director of the New Jersey Brewers Guild, who is among those talking to the ABC.
Among the proposals floated in the draft proposal:
Though some breweries are already balking at the measures as too restrictive, the proposals are a significant loosening of current regulations.
Other proposed changes include items that are routine at most places that serve alcohol. Private parties, background music and the sale of snacks – mainly chips and nuts – would be OK. However, onsite food service and coordination with food trucks is still forbidden, as is the placement of restaurant menus inside breweries.
As for that troublesome tour, it’s still a requirement. But the proposed new rules now define a tour as “any form of engagement with brewery visitors… that communicates information about the brewery and the brewing process.”
So, technically, I suppose, a sign pointing to the brew house would qualify.
*ADDENDUM: Vince Masciandaro of Village Idiot Brewing advises via Facebook that “the part about ‘live entertainment…’ is incorrect, this was never a rule…..and in actuality last year with the prior director we received written notification that it was permitted.” In fact, an April 2017 directive from the brewers association director said the ABC would henceforth OK live music and live televised sports.
I’m adding that correction here rather in the comments section so it doesn’t get lost.