Committee to discuss so-called 'Stone bill' aimed at attracting beer jobs to South Carolina

State lawmakers are mulling loosening restrictions on S.C. brewery laws in hope of landing Stone Brewing's expansion and hundreds of jobs. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

A joint House-Senate conference committee began Wednesday to hash through the final details of a bill aimed at landing large, out-of-state breweries that promise a bonanza of jobs and millions in economic impact.

Technical language is still being hammered out and is expected to change to some degree in order to appease all parties, including the Department of Commerce and beer distributors, lawmakers said.

Members of the joint committee hope to have a deal when the panel is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday. Committee members Sens. Sean Bennett, Brad Hutto, Luke Rankin and Reps. Jim Merrill, Todd Rutherford and Derham Cole are working on the compromise.

The bill, which would overhaul and remove restrictions from the state's beer production laws, would still need to be endorsed by both the House and Senate and few days remain in this year's legislative session. But supporters said there should be enough time left to make that happen.

State Commerce Department officials have pushed lawmakers to put a deal in place and place South Carolina in a more competitive stance to attract large beermakers such as Stone Brewing and one other unnamed brew company look at locating in the state, Bennett said.

The biggest resistance to the bill has come from beer distributors, who fear that the bill is a slippery slope toward cutting their homegrown businesses out of the picture, said Bennett, R-Summerville.

But Bennett said he believes distributors would benefit. "At the end of the day, those folks are going to make a lot more money," he said.

"We sped up the process to try to get something done," Bennett said. "In a perfect world (the breweries) would be in our region."

Julie Cox, executive director of the S.C. Beer Wholesalers Association, said her group does not oppose the legislation in principle and did not raise concerns out of fear of losing business. Rather, they noticed problems with some of the technical language in the bill and want that straightened out to avoid possible legal challenges down the road, she said.

"We totally support the expansion of the craft brew industry and economic development," she said.

Lawmakers also said they might add two unrelated measures to the bill: a ban on powdered alcohol and lifting the prohibition against Election Day alcohol sales in exchange for banning them on Christmas.

Supporters of the so-called "Stone Bill" have been rallying beer lovers to urge lawmakers to get behind the effort, highlighting the potential to create jobs. A website has been set up to aid in that push.

The House of Representatives passed the bill last week, and the Senate quickly assigned it to the six-member conference committee to work on a potential compromise to let the measure go forward.

Driving the debate is the possibility of landing Stone's planned expansion to the East Coast - a move that promises to bring nearly 400 jobs and a $29 million investment to the host city that lands it. The Escondido, Calif.-based craft brewery is the 10th largest of its kind in the United States.

Charleston County is reportedly 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 supporters of the bill are pushing to 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.

That's important to attracting breweries like Stone, supporters argue, because their operations are more than just production facilities, they are destinations for beer aficionados. In addition to tours of its plant, Stone offers a restaurant, an elaborate garden, upscale bars, a store and other features.

Currently, state breweries are limited to allowing each customer to drink up to three pints on their premises over a 24-hour period. The bill would lift that restriction.

Even if the state doesn't land Stone, supporters contend 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.