Somewhere around two years ago, the North Carolina craft beer community got a shock to its system. The Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) arm of the Department of Public Safety closed a few beer festivals. Why? Servers at the beer festival were taking the opportunity to go around and taste other beers. You see in North Carolina it is illegal for someone who is serving beer to drink while on duty or while wearing their uniform. Bars and restaurants followed this rule with no problems. However, most craft beer people didn’t know this new interpretation of the rule now included festivals. Tasting beer is one of the incentives for volunteering for to pour at a beer festival for brewery and distribution reps. That is one of the main draws to get volunteers for the Great American Beer Festival.
Under the ALE interpretation, that is now verboten. So is having a post-shift beer at the place you work even if the establishment has closed for the day. Bartenders can no longer pour themselves a beer to sip as they sweep and mop. Again, under ALE interpretation, you are still on duty.
Now, as this Free-Times article highlights, South Carolina’s craft beer community is coming under the same scrutiny from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). Basically, SLED contacted the SC Department of Revenue to get a ruling on whether nonprofits are retailers for these types of events because in SC brewers can’t have any direct dealing with retailers. Not only is it illegal for brewers to donate beer directly to a nonprofit retailer, they cannot pour their own beer at a festival sponsored by the nonprofit retailer. In this case, the SC Brewer’s Guild was considered a nonprofit retailer so brewers (members of the guild) couldn’t pour their own beers.
Without getting into the weeds of the absurdity of this particular situation, the larger point is somehow craft beer is succeeding in this country when the laws that govern it change from state to state. They can also change from year to year depending upon who is interpreting and how they are interpreting the laws that govern beer and alcohol.
Here are my problems with alcohol laws in this country:
- Most of the laws affecting craft beer culture were written years before the idea of craft beer was even conceived.
- The hodge-podge nature of alcohol laws vary from state to state is more than just an annoyance for brewers.
- Alcohol law enforcement is poorly funded and staffed. Plus, staff, like the rest of general population, is just learning about craft beer and how its culture is different from a traditional beer and alcohol culture. Also, that culture is often imported from other states where craft beer is better established and the laws are different creating somewhat of a culture clash.
The people I feel worst for are the government officials and agents tasked with interpreting and enforcing these laws. They are hamstrung by the 3 problems I just listed. I think each state should create a commission to study how to modernize its alcohol laws and change them to fit our times and culture. Of course, that could just make things worse.