The Thirsty Beagle: Reaction: Beer fans, insiders sound off on blog post

Friday, January 22, 2016

Reaction: Beer fans, insiders sound off on blog post

My blog post on Thursday -- about the process of getting the state question written up for alcohol reform -- elicited a lot of reaction, both in agreement and disagreement with what I wrote.

And I think that's great. I don't claim to have all the answers, or know everything about beer, or that my opinion is better than anyone else's.

What I was really hoping to accomplish was not just to share my opinion (which, in case you were wondering, is built on covering, reporting on and writing about the Oklahoma craft beer scene for seven and a half years, and also covering politics and elections in Oklahoma for the Associated Press and The Oklahoman going back to 2002). It was also to make people continue the conversation on this topic in a public forum.

Despite any criticism of what I wrote -- and I did think everyone's opinions were valid, even those that disagreed -- I truly believe we cannot let this conversation happen only within the walls of the Capitol.

So I'll continue that conversation a little bit here by sharing some of the reaction to the blog post from my Facebook page (for fairness, these comments are unedited).

First, you have state Sen. Stephanie Bice:

I'm a bit surprised by the post. First, the "we're" references ALL the interested parties. I have had NUMEROUS meetings with every involved entity to understand what their top priorities are. That includes the craft breweries. Adam and Eric Marshall can attest to this. I will fight like hell to allow the breweries to sell their product. I wanted to see SB424 pass independently last session but it got caught up in the bigger 383 discussion and didn't get heard on the House side. I also want them to have the option to self distribute if they so choose. I WANT Oklahoma craft breweries to succeed and will work to support them. Anyone who thinks otherwise is misguided.

Second, the notion the "some entities" I referenced that would be affected if we "lose control and this goes the initiative petition route" are the big distributors and AB is again, false. Do they have a seat at the table? Of course, but so do the NRS'/Brokers, Retailers, Wholesalers, Groceries, C-Stores, Craft Brewers and others. I've advocated for all of them in some way or another.

I hope this public response clears up some of the assumptions made.

We also had one of the state's beermakers join in. Mustang Brewing Co. founder Tim Schoelen shared this thought:

Thank you, Nick! Someone is finally saying, publicly, what this "movement" has become. This new bill is not for the brewers, it is for the distributors. Oklahoma craft brewers and their fans are being left behind; hopefully, just for now. I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of something more.

Schoelen returned later to respond to a commenter who respectfully took issue with what Schoelen was saying in the thread:

Charlie - I did not take any disrespect from your post, nor did I mean any in my earlier comments. I have immense respect for Senator Bice, Kevin Hall, Zach Prichard, Eric Marshall, and all who are carrying the torch on this issue. We have made great strides forward over the past, few years and there is momentum. I am, however, pessimistic that SB424 will be passed this session in a way that will allow local breweries to sell our products direct to consumers [as do wineries]. The larger issues with SB383 that concern distributors with far deeper lobbying dollars than the small, Oklahoma breweries will garner most of the focus. It is how the system works. I could be mistaken. I certainly hope I am. I have only been in the craft beer game for a little over six years. I am far from an expert. This is solely my personal opinion.

And the Kevin Hall that Schoelen mentioned shared some good insight as well. Hall is the founder of LOCAL -- the League of Oklahomans for Change in Alcohol Laws. Here's what he had to say:

There are two bills. One is SB383 and the other is SB424. SB383 is a bill that was originally only about refrigeration, but it grew to abolish the dual strength system. This means that it impacts the business models of retail outlets and distribution. Additionally, the bill now moves the state to a three tier system. All of these things touch on consumer choice, retail, and distribution.

There are two major areas, concerning 383, where there is conflict. One is the retail fight. One side wishes to move wine over to grocery stores and convenience stores and they do not want an ABV cap on the beers they can sell. The other wants to keep wine mostly in package stores and wants to put an ABV cap on traditional 3.2 outlets. (The last I heard, there was something of a Colorado agreement on the table.) Either side could leave the table with their own initiative petition.

Second area of conflict is distribution. On the weak beer side, ABInBev owns a distributor. They would like to be able to own this distributor when we go single strength. The Beer Distributors of Oklahoma do not want ABInBev to own a distributor. They favor independent distributors. Either side could leave the table and start a petition.

I know this because I have been asked by numerous people to do a petition initiative favoring their side.

There are pluses and minuses, from a consumer perspective, about all of these changes. Additionally, they have pluses and minuses concerning their impact on craft beer. I'm anxious to see what the language looks like. I am opposed to certain things that may make it in, and I'm curious about the shape of the language. But ultimately I'm a bit in the dark about them. I do know that Senator Stephanie Bice has been open and willing to talk about most of this. She is tenacious.

I do agree that there is a need for a consumer voice. Which is why I founded LOCAL a year or so ago.

I honestly felt like the whole thread was a very respectful, civil discourse. It's the type of discussion we have to be able to have. And, in hearing from Sen. Bice and others within the industry, I do believe there is collaboration happening and that some compromises will be made -- more so than I would have considered prior.

That being said, I still maintain my position, which I explained in the thread -- that Anheuser Busch and the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma will ultimately steer the ship on the language of the state question.

When all is said and done, I just have trouble with the idea that this state question somehow will be different from every other big political issue in terms of who wields the most influence at the negotiating table.

Either way, I'm engaged and curious to see how this shakes out.

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