Thursday, April 16, 2015

Florida Craft Brewers Battle Big Beer Over More Than Just Taste

In the past decade, the beer giants of America have taken a hit not only in sales but in image. The iconic brewers fun commercials (who doesn't remember the Budweiser frogs) couldn't save the brewers bottom lines from a revolution of taste sweeping across regions of the US. Beer was becoming something other than a thin pale interpretation of a pilsner, and people began to realize that a few extra dollars was worth it for the new options put before them. Because of this, big beer did what any corporate giant would do: they sold to international conglomerates, gobbled up some of the competition, and tried to squeeze the rest of them by taking over the distribution networks using laws written before the revolution began. Big beer became a bully instead of innovating and in Florida, where we just visited, the bully has been winning.

Let me throw out a few numbers to start: 20 million, 100 million, 5.5 million, 190, 110, and 100. What do those numbers represent? There are over 20 million residents in the state of Florida and over 100 million visitors to the state every year (making Florida the top tourist destination in the world). 5.5 million represents the populations of Wisconsin and Colorado (not combined), 2 of my most visited states but nowhere near Florida in terms of tourists (one stat had Colorado at near 60 million visitors). 190 is an estimate of craft breweries in Colorado, 110 is Wisconsin, and 100 is Florida. Oh boy now we have to do math, but that doesn't seem proportional at all. Correct (I like math by the way), those numbers are staggering. With one quarter of the population, those 2 states outbrew Florida not only in per capita drinkers (per 100,000 people over the age of 21) but in whole numbers of breweries.When you look nationwide at breweries per capita by state, Florida ranks 46th out of 50. I know Floridians, and they don't rank 46th in anything unless there's a reason.

Well, what's the reason and why are we counting with our toes instead of drinking beer? I drove around for an hour looking for local Florida craft beer in liquor stores (IN FLORIDA) so I felt the issue deserved a highlight or 64 (shout out to Florida growler fans). Beer distribution laws nationwide have been burdening craft breweries for decades (the 3 tier system forces breweries to go through a distributor instead of going straight to market with their product) though networks in other parts of the country have been easier to crack. Unfortunately for Florida, and unsurprisingly Missouri, the struggle to get to market has been made more difficult by the long standing influence of a big beer giant in the state. Yes that company that takes commercial shots at craft beer makers has been brewing beer in the Sunshine State for decades, Busch Gardens anyone? For decades they've dominated the distributor network and have done all they can to keep the little guys off the shelves. With friends in state legislatures and money to burn as well om lobbying, there is no end in sight when it comes to new rule making sand tighter squeezes on the Florida craft beer industry.

Like the manatee, Florida craft brewers are an endangered species that need all of our support
Beyond the difficulties that come with cracking the distribution networks, archaic rules about growler size also plague Florida's craft brewers. There is a general murkiness of not being able to sell beer in tap rooms without having to buy beer back from a distributor at a mark up  as well. You brew it, sell it at a razor thin profit margin, buy it back at an even bigger increase, and then sell in your tap room. Beyond that, breweries can only sell growlers of 32 ounces or 128 ounces instead of the popular 64 ounces that enthusiasts enjoy nationwide (this rule is about to be overturned in the Florida legislature, but that doesn't change the climate overnight). That's because with the bill comes amendments that could restrict tap rooms themselves, holy moly. In plain words, it is nearly impossible for a small brewer in small town Florida to operate in this climate (no not the humidity) and survive for any long period of time. And that has been one of our main goals as advocates for breweries, to highlight the throwback breweries serving great towns across the country, which makes all this Florida craziness relevant.

But how is all of this relevant to the traveling community? Take that 100 million per year number, Florida's tourist numbers. I'm not saying the growing fermented traveling community (beverage travelers?) will make any significant increase to those numbers, but what those numbers represent are a lot of people who can help make a difference to the local Florida economies. Rick Steves wrote a book entitled "Travel as a Political Act". The book is not a manifesto for creating revolutions in the places you travel. Traveling as a political act, is about broadening your horizons and leaving the places you travel to in better shape (even with your ultimately small footprint). There may be nothing more "political" than economic issues. The Florida economy is better served by local breweries employing local residents, using local agriculture, and recycling the money spent through Florida vs. a few large companies that operate everything in Florida taking the money overseas. And by frequenting tap rooms and local bars while in Florida, or looking for a Florida brewery label if you don't happen to be in a city that has a brewery yet (which is a lot) you take the first step towards your political act.

I know that looks like a simplistic view of the economy, but it's a start and there are ways to involve yourself beyond supporting local beer while you're in Florida. The Florida Craft Brewers Guild and local craft brewers are now and will continue to be in a fight with distributors and legislators influenced by those beer giants. They have set up crowd funding in the past and, with the influence their competition yields, will need support in the future. Keep your eyes on Florida, as this will be the model for other states as big beer continues to lose its market share.

Fresh Florida citris, palm tress, and local beer, I can't wait to go back for more
Oh yeah, the beer in Florida was found after that hour drive. 3 stops were made: 1 giant liquor store's version of craft beer was PBR, 1 giant grocery store's version of local craft beer was from Wisconsin (and brewed by a big boy), and the last stop was where we hit our jackpot. That jackpot was still outnumbered by beers from Colorado (don't get me wrong I love Colorado beer) but there was a nice small selection of Florida beers that perfectly fit the warm humid climate. A winter beer means something different in Florida, and that's why we need to continue to help keep these breweries local.