Watching Wisconsin: Following The Craft Beer Budget Amendment

In Beer News, Beer Politics by Karl

The Statehouse in Madison, where they're regulating your beer.

KARL: I spent this last weekend in southern Wisconsin and only had 3 Spotted Cow drafts across all three days.  To atone for my beer sin, I’m going to try and get us caught up (myself included) on what’s going on north of the Cheddar Curtain as it pertains to craft beer.  Perhaps you’ve been seeing headlines and tweets about legislation going on that might constrain the rights of craft brewers in defense of MillerCoors.  Here’s what it looks like to us.

While the Illinois battle of craft brewers versus A-B barely got a lick of notice across the country, all you have to do is throw a nationally-infamous (and potentially soon-to-be-recalled) governor into the mix and you get sites like Salon and ThinkProgress covering craft beer in Wisconsin.  If the budget vote (scheduled for this week, from what we can tell) reintroduces limits on collective bargaining, expect to see any concerns on the part of the major press outlets to disappear, but we’re glad they’ve chosen to shine a bit of their spotlight on the craft beer amendment.

Based on what we’re looking at, the law is definitely restrictive, but appears to actually be less constraining in some ways than the Illinois legislation.  You’ll recall that here in Illinois, brewers have to produce less than 15k barrels to get a “craft brewer” license, and they can self-distribute 7500 of those barrels on their own.  The WI budget amendment allows breweries that create 300,000 barrels to self-distribute, which you can safely translate as “anyone BUT MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch.” That’s the good news.

It’s the other parts of the amendment, which represent a vast overreach by the WI GOP with no input from craft brewers and brewpubs, that craft beer fans are all up in arms about.  It’s not just the self-distro rights that are up for grabs – it’s other rules regarding licensing, brewpub limitations, and specifications of what number of accounts you need to distribute your own beer.


Brewers of less than 300,000 barrels annually will still be able to self-distribute, but current brewers and new wholesalers would be required to have 25 independent retail customers prior to being granted the right to distribute. According to a MillerCoors spokesperson, these new rules would also prevent small brewers from banding together to form their own distributorship. In addition to all of that, the measure would prevent brewers from owning retail licenses, meaning that they could have a brewpub, but they would only be allowed to sell their own product. Breweries that already own retailing outlets would be allowed to retain one.

Let’s bring a little IL parallel into this argument.  It’s not a perfect 1-to-1 equivalency, but Windy City Distribution, responsible for lots of craft beer in the Chicago area and which exists in part thanks to Two Brothers Brewing, would potentially not be allowed to exist.  If someone in Illinois wanted to create a brewpub like Lunar Brewing or Limestone Brewing Company, who has plenty of their own beer on tap but also hosts a number of guest handles, they’d be barred from doing so and would be forced to only sell their own brew against their wishes.

Inre: the 25-retail-account requirements,  a brand new brewery coming into the market might only be able to get a handful of starter bar accounts to sell their initially-unknown product.  If this law existed in Illinois, then breweries like Argus that initially started brewing for just a few restaurants, wouldn’t have had the chance to grow and gain distribution – and since they’re currently contract brewing for 5Rabbit, that’s two craft breweries whose product we wouldn’t be enjoying.

It’d be nice if the WI Legislature would take a cue from the Wisconsin State Journal, who just released this editorial.  They recommend this:

[If] this last-minute addition to the budget reaches Gov. Scott Walker’s desk, he should veto its provisions. That way, the public, Wisconsin’s beer industry and state lawmakers will have ample time to analyze and weigh the implications as a stand-alone bill…moreover, the proposal’s limited financial implications for the state don’t justify its inclusion in the massive state budget to begin with.

Wisconsin still clings to questionable rules and limits on its beer industry that date back to the Prohibition era. Updating and overhauling the system to encourage fair and free competition makes sense. The ultimate goal should be to side with what’s best for the public.

Yes, yes and yes.  Hey, Wisconsin legislature – bring everyone to the discussion.  Working on the legislation outside of the budget will preclude A-B from jumping into the distributorship pool, craft brewers can have a voice and you can still find a way to also protect MillerCoors as well.  Hell, maybe even just make the 300k self-distribution line the law of the state and be done with it.  But bring craft brewers to the table, no matter what you do.

There’s a strong possibility, of course, that this will pass on the back of the Wisconsin budget under what they surely hope will be under the radar.  The only way to prevent that, Wisconsin readers, is to call, email and contact your state legislature and tell them you want this amendment stripped from the budget, and an independent piece of legislation written.  Take your cues from our Save The Craft page, and feel free to use our form letter as inspiration for your email or phone script.

Whatever you do, get moving.  The clock is ticking.

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About the Author



Karl has written about food, travel and beer for Chicago Magazine, Draft Magazine, Thrillist, Time Out Chicago and more. His book, Beer Lovers Chicago, is now available via Amazon and other booksellers. If you're buying, he's likely having a porter or a pale ale.

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