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A Call to Action for Craft Beer in Illinois — Help Danielle D'Alessandro Flex Some Muscle in Springfield This Week

Danielle D'Alessandro has been fighting for you, the craft beer consumer. She's been working the halls of Springfield's legislature on behalf of the Illinois Craft Brewers' Guild. And whenever she gets a chance, she tries to get a state senator, or representative on her home turf — the breweries and brewpubs in their home districts where they can witness the craft beer industry first-hand. 

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As part of the lobbying firm Strickland & Associates, Danielle and Dave Strickland were hired by the guild because of their success with the Granholm case, which established the  right to self-distribution for small wineries in Illinois, enabling small start-ups in Illinois to get off the ground and start growing. Now with craft beer running into similar complexities, as well as multiple licenses needed for brewpub and brewery owners, and a manufacturing cap of only 15,000 barrels, there was work to be done. Serious work. And this week is when all that effort comes to a head. This week, the legislature will decide on a number of modifications to the craft brewers' license for Illinois, and the potential growth of our industry is at stake. 

In the past three years, nearly 40 new breweries have opened their doors, and collectively, we employ 2,500 people. In a country with so many depressing stories about economic stasis, craft beer is a welcome glimmer of hope for both industry and culture. If you are moved to call in your support for craft brewers and their right to grow in Illinois, then here's what you can do: 

You can read a breakdown of the modifications at Solemn Oath Brewery's website here >>

And then you can find your state representative here, and call them to voice your support. No form letters, no emails. Pick up the phone and call. Because nowhere are voices as effective as when they're reverberating in the heads of your representatives come voting time.  

To get a bit more on the backstory, and the life of a lobbyist in the craft beer industry, I met up with Danielle at the closing festival for Chicago Craft Beer Week. Surrounded by dozens of brewers from the guild, and hundreds of dedicated consumers, there was no better setting to clink our glasses and talk politics. 


MK: 
Danielle, tell me how you ended up being the muscle behind some of craft beer's biggest brewers. 

DD:
I started working with Dave Strickland 4 and half years ago, a two person lobbying firm. We consult with a number of clients ranging from higher education to charter  schools to heath care and not for profits, and then the fun clients, the guild and the Illinois wineries. Dave Strickland had represented the wineries back during the Granholm case about direct shipping from wineries to customers. Dave was in Springfield on that issue, got a really favorable result for the small wineries here in Illinois, and one of the owners, Dick Faltz out at Fox Valley Winery, he knew Josh Deth [Revolution Brewing in Chicago] and put them in touch. So when the Anheuser-Busch case was happening over the self-distribution issue, Josh got in touch Dave and we hit the ground running. 

MK:
What was your role in the self-distribution case against Anheuser-Busch?

DD:
We were representing the small brewers here in Illinois, Big Muddy in Murphysboro and Argus here in Chicago who were the only two brewers who were self distributing. And we wanted to make sure were could maintain their right to self distribute on a micro level. We were the lobbyists in Springfield who were able to help pass the Craft Brewers license that would allow a brewer to produce up to 15,000 barrels and self distribute 7,500 barrels, half of that beer. So it allowed the smaller brewers, and a lot of them popping up since in Illinois, to take advantage of that same license to be able to self distribute.  

MK:
Why is it so important that smaller breweries are able to self distribute?

DD:
It gives them an opportunity to get to market, build a brand name, and build a customer base, before they look to sign on with a distributor. For a smaller brewer, they don't have the name recognition that a larger brewer would, like an Anheuser-Busch or a Miller or a Coors or a Sam Adams. And these smaller brewers know their beer better than anybody. So they have the opportunity to go out and directly sell to restaurants and to retailers, and customers and start to develop their brand name. And when they become big enough and a distributor wants to pick them up, people are going to be able to go into a Binny's or a grocery store and say "oh yeah, I've had those guys," or "I've been to that brewpub or brewery and they make good beer." They're gonna want to try it.  

MK:
What's the day-to-day like in your role as a lobbyist for the guild?

DD:
We're in Springfield, we're talking to state senators and representatives. We're talking to staff in the governor's office and the liquor control commission. We're working with staff at the capital to help them understand the complexity of the liquor code and the issues that are important to our small brewers. We also try to bring the legislators out to the various breweries and brewpubs that are in their district so they can meet the owner of the brewery, put a face against it, see that their providing jobs right here in their community. It's about building the reputation, understanding what the issues are, and then working to try and pass legislation that helps our brewers.

MK:
What's the issue you're working on right now?

DD:
Right now were working to raise that 15,000 barrel manufacturing cap for Craft Brewers licenses to 200,000 so that small brewers can make more beer, sell that to distributors, and still have some limited access to self distribution. That way they can grow their business and if they want to open up a brewpub or another brewery, they can do that all under the same common ownership. 

MK:
When's the last time you took a state senator to a brewpub?

DD:
They're in session January through May, and during that time they're in Springfield for most of that. So that last time we took State Representative Art Turner, the Assistant Majority Leader and state rep for Haymarket, and we had a very good lunch with him at Haymarket to explain our issues. Representative Turner homebrews with some of his friends in his garage. He immediately got the issue and understood what we were trying to do. We had the senate president, John Cullerton, come to Half Acre Beer Company. He's the senator for that district. It was really neat. He came on a Saturday morning and we met for an hour. When he was walking out, there were probably 45-50 people lined up to do the 11 o'clock beer tour. So he sees all these people on a Saturday morning in line waiting to do a beer tour and that really had an impact on him. It showed that people are interested. They want craft beer. They want to be a part of what's going on in this industry. 

MK:
For the senators and representatives that harder to sway, what do you think the barriers and issues are for them?

DD:
The larger beer distributors have been in Springfield since Lincoln was there. They've been around for a long time. They have a lot of good relationships. So sometimes legislators are hesitant to talk about this three tiered system of manufacturing, distributing, and retailing. This cross-pollination issue, they want to keep it as separate and in-tact as possible. This idea that a brewpub is a retailer and a manufacturer is a little bit difficult. Understanding that a raise in production cap means having all the beer go through a distributor. It's not self distribution. And the biggest story we're trying to tell is that's about economic growth, that these are jobs with tax revenue, and the community it creates. The people coming out on a weeknight or a weekend, people coming out here on a Saturday and being part of a larger community, having a good time together. That's the story we want to tell. 

MK:
Is there any resistance from their constituents? 

DD:
The issue is more with elected officials. It's not so much that we have to convince them. They have a hard job to do. On any day, they're dealing with a number of issues. We had five days of session left and they still have to pass a budget, conceal-carry, maybe pass the legalization of marijuana, maybe same-sex marriage, so they're dealing with some big issues and they're working really hard. Sometimes they might not even be aware of what's going on in other industries. So it's just helping them understand and making them aware, bringing them out to their breweries or brewpubs in their district so they can see the impact that this industry is having on the local economy and their constituents and consumers that want this beer. 

MK:
Working with healthcare, wine beer, what's unique to the challenges of lobbying for the brewers' guild?

DD:
It's very complicated. Heath care is too, but the difference between a production brewery vs. a brewpub vs. having both of them and the licenses involved, and just the liquor code in general. The liquor code dates back to 1934, so there's a lot of things that are outdated and so trying to help legislatures understand what you can do with what licenses, the unintended consequences and what we want to change...once they get it, it makes sense. It's the complexity of the liquor code and how we can modernize that, and make it relevant and viable for the industries that are operating today.  

MK:
And what is the end result for consumers? Why should the people here at the Closing Festival for Chicago Craft Beer Week be concerned about what the legislature does this week regarding the manufacturing cap, ownership licenses and self-distribution rights of craft brewers in Illinois?

DD:
You take a business like Revolution Brewery here in Chicago, who started their brewpub and built a brand, and they have two hour waits outside their brewpub on any given night, so Josh decides to open a production facility. He invests a lot of money into that, there's a lot of interest, distributors want to sell their beer, consumers want to be able to buy that beer at retail and not just at the brewpub. But right now because of the way the law is, he has to work under this Craft Brewers' license because he has a brewpub and a production facility. So that caps him at making 15,000 barrels of beer. But he'll be at 20-25,000 at the end of this year and pass that cap. And he has the capacity to make a lot more. So if he can't make that beer, then he can't sell it through a distributor, and consumers can't buy that beer. It's about that access to market. Consumers want to be able to enjoy festivals like this one, they want to be able to buy beer at the local retailer. At the end of the day, it's about the consumers and they're the ones that are behind this drive for craft beer. 

Michael Kiser