South Carolina lawmakers soon may consider loosening restrictions on breweries in an effort to draw job-producing beermakers like Stone Brewing Co. to the Palmetto State.
The Escondido, Calif.-based craft brewery, the 10th largest of its kind in the United States, plans to expand its operation to the East Coast this year - a move that promises to bring nearly 400 jobs and a $29 million investment to the host city that lands it.
Charleston County is reportedly to be angling for the investment. Published reports suggest a host of other communities east of the Mississippi also are seeking to win the deal, including Greenville, Myrtle Beach, Lexington County, Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro and a host of other communities from Pennsylvania to Tennessee.
But South Carolina's current laws on brewpubs and breweries could put the state at a disadvantage, which is why some state lawmakers, such as Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, are drafting a bill that would loosen the restrictions.
Basically, the measure would rework the current definitions of the law so that breweries could function as brewpubs, allowing them to operate on-site restaurants that serve beer they and others produce. Brewpubs, currently limited to producing no more than 2,000 barrels per year, would see that capacity rise to 500,000 barrels, so that larger breweries like Stone, could meet that definition.
"The intention of the bill is not to change the distribution system. It's just to make it possible to create a unique business model so that brewpubs can sell larger volumes," Bennett said. "It's purely an economic development issue. It's to expand on momentum we built when we passed the pint bill last year. We have had amazing success with that."
State breweries that aren't classified as brewpubs can serve up to 48 ounces of beer on their premises to a customer over a 24-hour period. Before the pint bill, the limit was 16 ounces.
Bennett said the new bill could be filed in the Senate this week. That effort faces an uncertain future with the legislative session ending in June and with many other bills already in the pipeline.
Jaime Tenny, founder of Coast Brewing in North Charleston and president of the S.C. Brewers Association, said the change would allow the state to better compete with its neighbors in attracting breweries and jobs.
"It really would catch us up with the rest of the country," she said. "Right now, they're the ones getting all the jobs and all the economic impact. And we're talking about big money, big jobs here."
Stone's operation in Escondido is more than just a production facility, it's a destination for beer aficionados, Tenny said. In addition to tours of the plant, the brewer offers a restaurant, an elaborate garden, upscale bars, a store and other features.
"They are not going to locate to a state that does not allow that," she said.
Tenny and other supporters said the move would provide a significant boost to South Carolina's fledgling craft beer industry, which took off after the "Pop the Cap" campaign brought high-gravity beer to the state in 2007.
Still, North Carolina has more than 60 breweries compared to the Palmetto State's 15. One reason, industry experts say, is that the Tar Heel State's laws make it easier for beermakers to bring in revenue from on-site sales, merchandising and other sources.
That's part of the reason the Asheville area was able to land large new East Coast breweries for Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues.
Stone spokeswoman Sabrina LoPiccolo would not say when the company plans to make a decision on the East Coast brewery. But she said the company has not encouraged states to amend their laws to accommodate the brewery.
"We haven't been involved in that directly. We haven't had talks with lawmakers," LoPiccolo said. "The ability to meet our site guidelines and what we're looking for in a community are the first areas that we're looking at."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and Glenn Smith at 937-5556.