2016-07-07 / Around Town

Assembly Loosens Reins on Microbreweries

By Tom Walsh

State law already permitted "farm wineries," such as Newport Vineyards, above, to provide samples and sell wine. (Photo by Kirby Varacalli) State law already permitted "farm wineries," such as Newport Vineyards, above, to provide samples and sell wine. (Photo by Kirby Varacalli) The 2016 General Assembly approved legislation that would enable visitors to Rhode Island microbreweries, distilleries and wineries to sample the local products as well as to buy them in limited quantities for consumption elsewhere.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo signed into law identical House- and Senate passed bills on June 28. The final version of the bills limits daily sales for on-site consumption to 36 ounces per visitor. An earlier version in the House would have allowed sales of up to 72 ounces.

Proprietors of the Newport Storm brewery and distillery on Connell Highway and Newport Vineyards on East Main Road in Middletown had been watching the legislation closely as it made its way through the Assembly.

“This is great for the Rhode Island brewing community,” said Brent Ryan, Newport Storm owner and president of the Rhode Island Brewers Guild. “It definitely widens the variety of business models for those who’d like to get started here in Rhode Island.”

It also helps to boost Rhode Island microbreweries with respect to competition. from neighboring states, he said.

“The brewers and distillers in Massachusetts are unfettered when it comes to on-site sales,” Ryan continued. “Connecticut is somewhat restricted, but not as much as we were here. This creates a more level playing field with the neighboring states.”

The Newport Storm owner said he will continue to encourage visitors to his brewery and distillery to patronize local liquor stores. But Newport Storm visitors from cruise ships will now be able to return home with full cases of the local beer. Until now, that would have been illegal.

The new law permits breweries, wineries and distilleries to sell up to 288 ounces per day at retail to each visitor for consumption off the premises in containers no larger than 72 ounces each.

For the Middletown winery, one of two on Aquidneck Island along with Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth, the issue is less pressing because state law already permits “farm wineries” such as Newport Vineyards to provide visitors with samples and to sell wine.

“It doesn’t really change too much for us,” said John Nunes Jr., a vineyard co-owner. “I haven’t really read it, but it seems like a well-balanced solution for all of the different concerns.” Nunes described the ability of breweries and wineries to provide visitors with samples and an opportunity to buy beer and wine at the source as a positive “brand building” exercise.

According to a press release on the issue distributed by the General Assembly’s Legislative Press and Public Information Bureau, the new law will help microbreweries to succeed as “part of the growing beer tourism industry.”

Rep. Michael A. Morin, D-Woonsocket, sponsored the measure. A co-sponsor, Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, said the new law helps micro-brewers and distillers and will also help spur tourism.

“Microbreweries are a growing sector in Rhode Island, and we should give these hard-working small businesses the opportunity they need to get their products into the hands of consumers who have been asking us for increased access. Many don’t realize the value that these manufacturers add to our economy, and increased sales will equal more revenue and more hiring locally,” Tanzi said.

At the moment, Rhode Island has nine microbreweries and five brewpubs, including the Coddington Brewing Company on Coddington Highway in Middletown. These bills do not apply to brewpubs.

The number of microbreweries may grow to 10 by early October. Matt Gray, president of Gray Matter Marketing, a Newport marketing and event management firm, said he and five partners hope to open a new venture by then at 200 High Point Road in Portsmouth.

“It will be a small nano-brewery,” Gray told Newport This Week. “Right now we are in the process of getting our approvals from the state and federal governments.”

This points to the fact that microbreweries are a growth industry not just on Aquidneck Island, but across the United States as well.

“The beer landscape has changed,” Ryan said. “When we started, the number of microbreweries nationally was about 1,000. Today, it’s about 4,400.”

And the country has awakened to this reality.

In The Atlantic’s March issue, a story appeared that purported to provide an “informal checklist of the traits that distinguish a place where things seemed to work.” The article, by James Fallows, was entitled “Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed,” with number 11 being, “They have craft breweries.…A city on the way back will have one or more craft breweries, and probably some small distilleries too.…A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young customers.”

Fallows added, “You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception.”

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