‘Grand compromise’ between bars and breweries could see big Alaska alcohol changes

Published: Feb. 21, 2020 at 6:27 PM AKST
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Legislation before the Senate would rewrite Alaska’s alcohol laws and see big changes to how Alaskans go out and drink.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, who sponsored Senate Bill 52, told the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday about a “grand compromise” between bars and breweries.

The compromise would see some changes for brewery, winery and distillery tasting rooms, including clarification of which events can be held on their premises:

  • Tasting rooms could stay open till 10:00 p.m. instead of 8:00 p.m.
  • Four live music concerts could be held a year.
  • Fundraisers, brewery tours and art shows would be in statute and couldn’t be changed by regulation.

The agreement was worked out over a course of months by Alaska CHARR, the biggest trade association representing bars, and the Brewers Guild of Alaska, an association representing breweries across the state.

“We sat down, had a beer, came to common ground, made some compromises, and we’re all happy with what the bill looks like now,” said Evan Wood, the co-owner of Devil’s Club Brewing in Juneau.

There would be some limitations on breweries.

Limits would be tightened on new breweries opening across Alaska unless local governments petition the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office for an exemption. Daily drink limits for tasting rooms would also not be changed.

“It reflects eight years of hard work,” said Lee Ellis, the president of the Brewers Guild of Alaska.

Sarah Oates, the President and CEO of Alaska CHARR, told the Senate Finance Committee that the organization “proudly offers its full support.”

The third pillar of alcohol reform is public health and safety.

Micciche described that while the brewery and bar compromise would grab public attention, a major component of the bill was on limiting alcohol abuse, particularly by underage drinkers.

Mike Abbott, the CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, told the committee that the changes would benefit trust recipients. Tiffany Hall, the executive director of Recover Alaska, said it would limit youth alcohol use.

The vast majority of the 123-page bill is dedicated to cleaning up licensing rules. “It’s a hodge podge,” Micciche said of the current state alcohol laws.

The bill was voted out of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday on its way to a full vote of the Senate.

Micciche said he expected that to take place next week. “I'm cautiously optimistic that things are slowly moving toward passage this year,” he said.

Attempts to reform Alaska’s alcohol statutes have been made several times in the past.

“What’s always caused the wedge has been that friction between new breweries and existing license holders,” Micciche said.

Bar owners often pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a license and many have resented breweries serving alcohol after paying much less for their licenses. Brewery owners have argued that the cost of buying manufacturing equipment is also expensive.

In 2018, three members of the House of Representatives stood against a rewrite of the statutes, defending bars. The legislation was killed at the last moment with an amendment that would have lowered drink limits in tasting rooms.

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who owned a bar for 25 years, says she doesn’t like SB52 and its potential impact to bar owners. If CHARR, the Brewer’s Guild of Alaska and the public safety community are onboard, she says she won’t oppose it.

Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, said he hadn’t read the bill but wanted to see more control given to local governments.

Fairbanks Democrat Rep. Adam Wool, the former owner of the Blue Loon, sounded less enthused about the “grand compromise” and said he had heard from some bar owners who weren’t CHARR members who were frustrated. “They feel they’ve been encroached on,” he said.

Eric Forst, a co-owner of the Red Dog Saloon, exemplifies some of that frustration. “Every year they move ahead and dilute the value of that license, and our investment.”

Forst though was clear that he supported the reforms as a way to end a long-running dispute within the alcohol industry. “I would caution against making last minute changes to the bill,” he said.

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