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Updated: July 22, 2019 Politics & Co.

'Small' breweries breathe a sigh of relief over new law

File Photo / William Trevaskis Heather Sanborn, co-owner of Rising Tide Brewing Co., spoke in favor of a bill, signed by Gov. Janet Mills, that makes it easier for small Maine craft breweries and distilleries to do business.

A bill that will ease regulations for smaller craft brewers and distilleries was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills.

LD 1761 was one of 606 bills Mills signed this Legislative session, and among the final ones inked in July. A few dozen more were put on hold for further review.

The new craft brewery and distillery law changes the definition of a small craft brewer from a company with annual production of 50,000 gallons, or about 1,600 barrels, to 30,000 barrels a year. The bill also redefines how contracts with wholesalers and retail businesses work, making it easier for small operations to be flexible in their distribution.

It also comes at a time when the number of brewers has exploded, with much of the growth coming from small operations in rural areas of the state.

The bill was proposed by a group that included Kai Adams, co-founder of Sebago Brewing in Gorham and president of the Maine Brewers’ Guild. Adams told the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee in May that there was a “very strong message from our members that they need to broaden their self-distribution further to support their growth, and reform Maine’s franchise laws.”

State Sen. Heather Sanborn, who represents the Portland-Westbrook area and is also co-owner of Rising Tide Brewing Co. in Portland, said her district is home to nine breweries. She told the committee the bill modernizes an outdated law, written in 1979, when beer suppliers were mostly out-of-state operations.

“Under the [1979] law, small breweries that reach a very low production threshold of 50,000 gallons — a point at which a brewery can likely only employ a handful of people — have to enter into a distribution arrangement with a distributor,” she said. Under that law, it was difficult to get out of that relationship.

“We simply think that the time has come to update Maine’s law to reflect the current economic realities of the beer marketplace in Maine, level the playing field a bit between our local distributors and our local breweries, and set the stage for continued growth of our industry,” she said.

Jamie Blood, owner and head brewer at Corner Point Brewing, in Berwick, is the type of brewer the law is meant to help. He told the committee his brewery, which was founded in 2017 and opened in 2018, employs himself and two others. He plans to brew 600 barrels this year, but the law will keep him from having to “completely overhaul” his business plan when he gets to 1,600 barrels, he said.

“It will give us the opportunity to sell more beer in more locations, which will promote growth,” he said, and also allow the business to grow naturally.

State Sen. Louis Luchini, who represents Hancock County’s District 7, sponsored the bill. “As you know, this industry has an enormous economic impact on Maine — creating thousands of jobs, drawing tourists to Maine, and keeping young people in our state,” he told the committee.

A report by the University of Southern Maine, and issued by the Maine Brewers’ Guild in January, found Maine craft brewers directly employ 1,910 people across the state and pay more than $54 million in wages. The report found that 87% of the industry is made up of small breweries producing fewer than 50,001 gallons a year, or less than 1,600 barrels.

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