Alaska regulation limiting events at breweries, distilleries sparks calls for law change

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A draft regulation that would restrict events at breweries and distilleries is again sparking calls for the Legislature to rewrite the state’s alcohol laws.

In its July meeting, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board proposed a regulation package that would restrict festivals, games and competitions, classes, public parties, presentations or performances and other social gatherings advertised to the general public.

According to a memorandum from the board’s director Erika McConnell, “the board directed staff to strengthen the language to better reflect the legislative intent that these licenses are manufacturers, not retailers."

Evan Wood, the co-owner of Devil’s Club Brewing in Juneau, calls it “a terrifying package.” He says, if adopted by the board, the regulation could ban tours of breweries as well as breweries hosting fundraising events for local charities.

Echoing many brewery owners, Wood says the proposed regulation is vague and lawmakers need to step in to rewrite Title 4 Statutes, the state’s alcohol laws.

“We were really surprised to see this come out, it really came out of nowhere,” said Darcy Kniefel, the beer ambassador for Midnight Sun Brewing in Anchorage. Kniefel said if the regulation is adopted, the brewery would need to take artworks off the walls in fear of breaking the law.

Darwin Biwer, the owner of Darwin’s Theory, a cocktail bar and pub in downtown Anchorage, believes in limits and restrictions for how breweries and distilleries serve alcohol so they don’t compete with bars.

The different perspective, reflective of long-standing disputes within the alcohol industry. On one side, brewers and distillers, on the other side, hoteliers and bar owners.

Behind closed doors, a deal is being worked out.

Despite the disagreements, both sides of the alcohol industry speak about how each side can complement the other.

Wood says Devil’s Club Brewing is revitalizing downtown Juneau while bringing a clientele in the area that may not have always drunk in bars. Clarke Pels, the owner of Cynosure Brewing in Anchorage, says bars can benefit by serving craft local beers while breweries can benefit by having a different venue for their products.

“Our customers love to be able to buy our beer throughout the state,” he said.

Biwer also appreciates craft beers. He says when he opened his bar decades ago he had 6-8 beers on tap, now he has over 40 labels, many of which are brewed locally.

With a spirit of compromise, multiple brewery owners said that it was surprising that the state’s alcohol regulatory body would step in while negotiations are in full swing.

“I don’t really blame AMCO for coming up with a new regulation when we as legislators should have been dealing with it,” said Anchorage Republican Rep. Jennifer Johnston.

She said that the Legislature has been kicking the can down the road for years and that the “statutes are not really keeping up with the industry.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, a long-time advocate of rewriting the state’s alcohol laws, echoed Johnston. In 2018, he sponsored Senate Bill 76 that was supported by many across the industry.

The legislation was killed after it was amended in the House of Representatives.

Micciche has sympathy for bar owners who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their licenses but says there is a clear trend in the industry for craft beers. He says the state’s alcohol laws shouldn’t curtail the market.

In 2019, he introduced Senate Bill 52 to try to reform the state’s alcohol laws again. Micciche is confident lawmakers “can get it over the finish line” when the Legislature convenes for its next regular session in January.

Johnston though is concerned that the Legislature may not “have enough bandwidth” to pass an overhaul of the state’s alcohol laws when issues like the Permanent Fund dividend and the budget may take precedence.

The regulation is currently in a public comment period that runs until Oct. 4.

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