The moment patrons walk into Bolero Snort Brewery in Carlstadt, they are greeted with a question: “Hello, have you taken a tour here before?” A card is evidence that they’ve been there and taken a tour of the facility within the last calendar year as required by law and clarified by the Alcoholic Beverage Control’s special ruling issued in May 2019. They may now pass through to the tasting room.
Those who don’t have a card – either because they’ve never been there, or because they refused to share their information last time they came – are engaged in an explanatory tour, longer if they’d like but never for less than a few minutes, as the same special ruling that clarified that tours were only required annually also specified that they should be “substantive and meaningful.”
It’s a dance New Jersey patrons and breweries alone must perform, and co-owner Scott Wells is doing all he can to comply with the special ruling when enforcement kicks in during ABC License Year 2020, which begins on July 1.
The 2012 law that allowed breweries to sell pints of beer specified that they can be offered in tandem with a tour. While some breweries found creative ways to satisfy that requirement – videos on loop, laminated signs on tables – some disregarded it completely.
“By that language, until this special ruling came out, that meant if you came today you had to take a tour of the brewery before [having a] beer, and if you came back tomorrow, same thing,” Wells said. “With the special ruling, which my stance is ‘it’s not perfect but it’s a step in the right direction,’ the ABC said ‘we don’t have a purview of relaxing a statutory requirement such as the tour;’ however, they’re giving us the leeway to do it annually which is a huge step forward and additional leeway to operate how we see fit.”
Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands also started documenting folks getting tours when the special ruling came out, which owner Augie Carton called “pre-emptive.”
“If a guy took a tour in February, and we don’t start reporting until April, then everyone who answered before April, we’d have a log of. I just find it’s easier,” Carton said.
Depending on their focus, brewers and owners have a variety of opinions on the special ruling. A limit on events that breweries could have – 25 special events, 25 social affair events, 52 private parties, and 12 events off-premises; all of which must be shared with the ABC beforehand – and rules on how breweries could work with food trucks (they can’t) ignited backlash from some Main Street brewers, like Sean Galie at Lower Forge Brewing in Medford. Galie predicts the enforcement will “have a chilling effect on the state’s craft beer industry” and expects that Lower Forge’s participation in the town’s monthly food truck night and weekly Local Love Thursdays will have to be scaled back or changed.
“We’re one of the biggest tourist attractions in town. We always participate in all of our different tourism events, and I think [being less involved due to restrictions] would genuinely harm our community downtown. Our entire town council, they’re all ready to go to Trenton to meet with them for that,” Galie said.
Andrew Linden, member at Norris McLaughlin PA in Bridgewater, recommends that breweries modify their business plans now to comply with the special ruling, from tour requirements to events scheduled to television size limits (no more than 65 inches). Those with special circumstances can submit an application for relaxation to the ABC, a process that he’s seen take “no more than 90 days.”
We’re not trying to make money on the backs of tourism. I think we’re genuinely helping my hometown get better.
– Sean Galie
“I don’t think the ABC is looking to hammer people that are looking to be good citizens,” Linden said.
Chuck Garrity of Death of the Fox Brewing in Clarksboro received one such exception. The special ruling provides that breweries cannot also brew and serve their own coffee, which was a direct challenge to his coffee house-craft brewery business model.
His application was reviewed and accepted in two months, but what he couldn’t score was a special exception for the second location he had planned in Washington Township. That location, which he said would have added $5 million in taxable income and a couple dozen jobs over the course of four years to Washington Township, will now be built in Pennsylvania.
At Lower Forge, Galie hasn’t filed for any special exceptions yet, though he’s spoken with his lawyers and might.
“We’re not trying to make money on the backs of tourism. I think we’re genuinely helping my hometown get better,” he said.
New Jersey Brewers Association Executive Director Alexis Degan recommends that businesses log attendance to their events to present to the ABC for the body to get a feel of the vast amount of events that happen.
“The unifying theme is that they are often very community-specific. [Maybe they’re] doing an event, and a portion of the proceeds go back to the puppy rescue, or open mic night is exposure for local artists. We encourage them to make sure they’re making the case to the ABC for their events, what they’re really like, so that they remove the limits on them,” Degan said.
Cindy Derama’s hyperlocal brewery Twin Elephant in Chatham isn’t in the business of trivia, open mics, or puppy rescues, and she isn’t planning on getting into those things. But like many owners, she’s thinking of the entire sector.
“Whatever helps the industry as a whole, we’ll always support. When it comes down to any ruling that’s going to seriously impact other breweries, even if it doesn’t impact our own, we’ll support our peers. We don’t say ‘oh it doesn’t affect us, so screw everyone else,’ we say ‘okay although it might not affect us, it might affect our industry,’ so we’ll be there to do what’s right for the whole.”
Derama said such an attitude redounds to everyone’s benefit. “It’s a great part of this industry that we support each other a lot, especially in New Jersey, which is a kind of amazing thing to be in this beer industry family,” she said. “If our peers aren’t doing well, at the end of the day we’re not going to do well either. We have to stick with each other to make sure the beer industry in New Jersey is healthy overall.”
Beginning June 3, the ABC Online Licensing System, called POSSE, will begin accepting notifications of events. According to the ABC, there will be a formal notice and comment period rulemaking process “in the near future” where the guidelines of the special ruling will be proposed as regulations. Upon approval, they will be fully enforceable against the state’s craft brewers. The ABC did not provide specific dates.
“My general hope is that if they’re combing through the special ruling and enforcing it to a T, that they do the same with all other liquor laws,” Wells said. “At the end of the day, I can only control what I do in my four walls, so I make sure I do everything on the up and up.”