When is an ice-cold craft brew more than just a beverage?
Well, when it becomes a big fat bargaining chip for lawmakers on Beacon Hill, that’s when.
In this pandemic-plagued economy, some of the hundreds of craft breweries that were once thriving here are now clinging to life as they wait for a much-needed reform in state law to resolve their decade-long dispute with distributors. That reform is being unnecessarily delayed by raw politics.
The dispute stems from a 50-year-old law that has essentially allowed wholesale distributors to hold craft breweries hostage: Once the breweries sign on with a distributor for six months, they have had to show cause why the arrangement should be dissolved — and the qualifying causes are quite limited. Lawsuits have been inevitable.
The wholesalers have long held powerful sway over state lawmakers, which helps explain why the fight has gone on for so long, even as the number of craft breweries has grown and their products have become a part of the tourism landscape. In 2007, there were just 34 licensed craft breweries in the Commonwealth; now there are more than 200, and, before the pandemic, they employed about 6,000 people. The Massachusetts Brewers Guild, a membership association of craft brewers, estimates the economic value of the industry to the state at more than $2 billion.
The compromise between the Massachusetts Brewers Guild and the Beer Distributors of Massachusetts would allow craft brewers that produce fewer than 250,000 barrels a year — which includes all but Boston Beer, brewer of Sam Adams — to ditch their distributor without proving cause on 30 days notice. Brewers would have to compensate distributors for the fair market value of those distribution rights, and any disputes about that compensation would be handled through an expedited arbitration process.
Glasses clinked and before the foam was off the mug, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed the bill July 23 and shipped it off to the House.
The pandemic instigated the overdue change. Taprooms set up by some of the craft brewers, like Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham, closed as part of the state’s social distancing measures, and brewers became even more dependent on their distributors. Some have since been able to reopen as beer gardens by offering food to keep their operations afloat, but times remain tough.
Senate President Karen Spilka, whose district includes Jack’s Abby and other craft brewers, has taken a particular interest in the issue — and in the failure of the House to take action.
“We in the Senate were hearing, and I think the House as well, that many of the craft brewers, because of COVID, if they didn’t have a restaurant they were having a hard time getting their product to market,” Spilka told a meeting of the 495/MetroWest Partnership recently.
“I am hearing that some of the industry, some of the craft brewers, are concerned that they may need to close if this situation isn’t ameliorated,” she added.
An unsuccessful effort was made on the House floor to attach the craft brewery bill to a sweeping economic development bill that passed at the end of July.
So two months have now gone by and a bill about which there has been no dispute still sits in the powerful House Ways and Means committee. In State House politics, that means something else is afoot.
It’s no secret the bill is important to the Senate president. It’s also no secret that the House has a few items on its agenda not embraced by the Senate — sports betting comes immediately to mind, or that proposed gas tax hike passed last March.
Yes, legislating often involves a bit of horse trading — but you’d think a pandemic and a bill that impacts a small but important part of the economy would moderate that mindset. After all, no one is really hurt if sports betting doesn’t pass this year.
But playing games with the livelihoods of folks who just want to make a good beer, make a buck selling it, and employ thousands of people in the process is truly bad politics. House lawmakers should be able to drink to that.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.