AUGUSTA — A bill that would have allowed Maine craft brewers to more easily sell their products to go was squashed like an aluminum beer can under foot by the state Senate on Tuesday.

At issue is whether businesses that make beer should be allowed to sell it more easily from a brewing facility without having to establish a separate off-premise store. Lawmakers opposed to the bill said it would create an uneven playing field for bars and restaurants, which don’t make beer but are prohibited from selling alcohol to go. Those in favor of the measure said it would help support a burgeoning industry in Maine that provides as many as 4,000 jobs.

The 17-16 vote against LD 1462 came only after a lively floor debate in which free-market conservatives joined forces with some of the Legislature’s most avowed liberals. The bill would also have allowed Maine-based distilleries and wineries to sell their products for consumption either on or off premises.

“I know there is lots of rhetoric and we are going to have more of it in 2016 about who is more business friendly, who wants less regulation. Well, folks, here’s an opportunity for us to all join together as one,” said Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland. Alfond, who was supporting the bill’s passage, later clarified his position in a dramatic statement.

“We are trying to clarify this for small businesses, getting rid of unnecessary regulation, the big hand of government coming in from Augusta, coming into our small craft brewers,” Alfond said. “That is what we are trying to eliminate.” 

Joining him in that quest was Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn. Brakey said several businesses in the Lewiston-Auburn area would benefit from the change.  

“We have many craft breweries that are coming up, that are really emerging businesses, and clearly an emerging industry for our state,” he said. “It simply does not make sense. The big hand of government completely coming in there, our officials saying you cannot purchase from on premise and off premise unless you have a wall and separate doors. It’s completely unnecessary government regulation.”

But opponents of the change, including Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, and Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, said if brew pubs were allowed to sell more alcohol to go, others would also want that privilege.

Cyrway, a Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer, said he also has concerns that making more beer available to go would create a dangerous scenario on the roads and could send the wrong message to young people.

“The regulation of alcohol is serious business,” Cyrway said. “Without proper regulations, alcohol can destroy the lives of families. We cannot allow public safety to be compromised; we cannot send the wrong message to our children.”

He and others argued against the state’s so-called three-tiered system of alcohol regulation that allows only those licensed to do so to sell beer and alcohol to go, but prevents them from selling it for on-premise consumption, leaving that to bars and restaurants that have received a locally approved liquor license.

Both entities are subject to state inspections and regulations to ensure they are in compliance. Maine also allows brew pubs to sell sealed glass containers of beer, known as “growlers,” to go and allows them to be refilled at a brew pub. 

The law change being sought would have allowed beer makers, like Baxter Brewing Co.’s Lewiston facility, to sell products directly to consumers. Currently, the brewery can sell from its tasting room only and the beer must be consumed on premise. 

Baxter’s beers are otherwise distributed to bars, restaurants and licensed beer and liquor stores.

Patrick said the Legislature had already done much to help prop up the state’s growing craft beer industry and that giving them one more advantage over other entities, including nonprofits like local VFW and Legion posts, which might also like to be able to sell beer to go, was simply too unfair.

“What if I go to a restaurant?” Patrick asked. “Why can’t I take out a 12-pack from there or a 30-pack after I’ve had a nice meal and either a glass of wine or a craft brew that happened to be from a local brewery?” 

Cyrway said keeping track of the taxes for alcohol sold in a restaurant, which is taxed at 7.5 percent, compared to alcohol sold from a store, which is taxed at 5.5 percent, also complicates the issue.

They noted that the state’s regulatory agency for beer sales, the Bureau of Alcohol and Lottery Operations, had testified against the change and was already too understaffed to enforce existing regulations on alcohol. 

Other lawmakers, who voted against the measure, also noted the bill didn’t limit the amount of beer a craft brewer could sell from its manufacturing facility under the proposal.

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How they voted

A “no” vote was in favor of the bill.

  • Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn: No
  • Sen. Jim Hamper, R-Oxford: Yes
  • Sen. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston: No
  • Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon: Yes
  • Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford: Yes
  • Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton: No

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