Since the end of prohibition, liquor laws have been under the control of each individual state. Most states enacted three-tier system laws that separated alcohol producers from retail outlets via a middle man or distributor. But, many states, even though they passed three-tier system laws, left wiggle room for small producers that allowed them to sell their products in self-run tasting rooms. Georgia was not one of those states. Until today, that is.
As Prohibition came to an end, lawmakers wanted a way to prevent the proliferation of “tied houses” or saloons that served beer from only one brewery. Before Prohibition, saloons were extremely competitive. Most areas had several, each tied to a different brewery. To enhance their beer’s prominence, brewers enticed bar owners to pledge fealty to them by providing loans for furniture and bar equipment under the stipulation that the bar only serve their beer. Breweries ran aggressive marketing campaigns and often applied pressure to their tied barkeeps to sell more and more beer. Often the result was overconsumption and drunkenness leading to deteriorating social situations. Add the specter of mob-controlled distribution and speakeasy networks during Prohibition and it was apparent a change had to be made.
The answer, or so the lawmakers of post-Prohibition America thought, was to put in place a three-tier system in which brewers or distillers could not sell directly to consumers or retailers, they could only sell their products to distributors who could then turn around and sell the product to retailers at a marked-up price. Lawmakers saw this as a way to prevent tied-houses and their overpowering influence. What they accomplished in many instances was to simply shift the corruption from overpowering breweries to distributors who forced breweries into distribution contracts that heavily favored the distributor and prevented producers from breaking the contract even if the distributor failed to market a product effectively.
This inequity is what led to a years-long fight for brewer’s rights in Georgia.
As early as 2001, Georgia’s lawmakers were conducting studies to determine the fairness of the three-tier system. In 2013, the subject was again taken up with brewers appearing before a committee to discuss the issues presented by a strict system that forbids them from selling to consumers directly from their breweries.
“This issue,” Said Rick Tanner of Cherry Street Brewing Cooperative to the commission. “Is more about competitive economic development than it is about alcohol distribution systems.”
In the end, the 2013 study simply made the suggestion that brew pubs be allowed to sell growlers of beer as long as it was purchased with a meal consumed at the brew pub and that it was partially consumed before leaving the premises.
Then, again in 2015, the subject was broached in the Georgia senate. The Republican Senator Hunter Hill from Smyrna introduced Senate Bill 63, that allowed breweries to offer “souvenirs” of their products to customers who took a “tour” of their facilities. While the bill fell short of small brewers’ hopes of being allowed to self-distribute in a limited capacity, it opened the door for future reform.
Finally, in February 2017 Senate Bill 85 was proposed. The Bill would allow the state’s licensed breweries to sell up to 288 ounces of beer — equal to 24 12-ounce bottles — to patrons at their taprooms with a direct sales limit of 3,000 barrels per year or about one million bottles.
Eventually, the Bill passed and Georgia’s governor signed it into law. Starting today Georgia’s breweries can now sell beer to their taproom visitors by the pint, bottle, can or even keg.
Across the state, breweries are hosting celebrations to mark the occasion. In Atlanta, SweetWater Brewing is marking the occasion with new tours and full pours for sale, while Red Brick is offering full pours and case sales. In Cobb County, Burnt Hickory is offering case sales of their brews at a special price, while Macon Beer Company in Macon will mark the day with a ceremonial first full pour.