Big Changes Coming Soon to Massachusetts Beer Industry?

Austin Ray

THE GIST
A number of substantial and far-reaching legislative changes could be just over the horizon for Massachusetts’ alcohol industry. In light of a recent rash of controversies sparked by unclear and outdated regulations, state treasurer Deborah Goldberg has convened a task force charged with reevaluating how the state’s alcohol industry is run in hopes of streamlining the laws. Comprised of seven unnamed “legal and political figures,” the newly created group is scheduled to meet for the first time later this month, according to the Boston Globe.

WHY IT MATTERS
The state was originally compelled to form the task force after an incident at a winery, per the Globe, but beer biz infighting played a role, too. Which makes sense: the Commonwealth’s beer industry has been rife with conflict of late.

As a refresher: the nation’s brewers, distributors, and retailers were paying close attention a little more than two years ago when Dann Paquette of Pretty Things Beer, now defunct, took to Twitter and aired grievances over rampant pay-to-play activity in the state, a tirade that sparked an investigation, subsequent charges, and unprecedented fines. 

But wait, there’s more! 

As we reported in October, Night Shift Brewing launched a distributorship of its own to combat an adjacent controversy over a rule that effectively binds brewers and wholesalers for life once a contract is entered. (Brewers can, under the status quo, fire a wholesaler with just cause, but that’s notoriously difficult and costly to prove, as brewers have attested in front of lawmakers.)

Now, inspired by all that ugliness, and with input from the public and various industry stakeholders, the task force is hoping to create a more equitable and above-board liquor industry for everyone. Which is good! But before giving the state a hearty pat on the back, it’s worth noting that Treasurer Goldberg oversees the Alcoholic Beverages Controls Commission (ABCC). In charge of enforcing the state’s booze rules, the ABCC has been routinely criticized for being too understaffed to perform its duties (allegations the organization has, for its part, routinely disagreed with). But to be fair, all of these problems pre-date Goldberg's 2015 appointment.

Regardless, the state isn’t the only entity coming to the table. Beer distributors, too, are hoping to end the long, bitter fight that led to the creation of the abovementioned Night Shift Distributing. Specifically, the group of beer wholesalers has filed a bill to appease companies like Night Shift, angry that they have no leverage in relationships with their wholesale partners. Filed Jan. 20, the wholesaler group says the bill “would allow privately owned and operated breweries that manufacture less than 30,000 barrels of beer (about 413,000 cases) per year to refuse to sell beer to any of their distributors at any time, for no reason at all.” Impressively, no just cause is necessary.

We don’t know yet how all of this will shake out. But if the separate industry tiers, long at odds, can come together and work with the state (which, if we’re being honest, has fairly lax laws to begin with), then there’s no reason it can’t be done in states with more restrictive laws. Just don’t hold your breath.

—Dave Eisenberg

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‘Everything is on the table’ in sweeping review of state alcohol rules [Boston Globe]