COLUMBIA — Amid rapid growth for South Carolina's craft beer industry, brewers are preparing to pursue a series of legislative changes in the upcoming Statehouse session that they say would remove lingering hurdles.
Once a state with some of the strictest beer sale limits in the country, South Carolina has relaxed several major laws in recent years, leading to new breweries popping up all over the state and particularly in the Charleston and Greenville regions.
In 2007, the state lifted a 6 percent alcohol-by-volume cap on beer sales, allowing for more specialty beers with higher alcohol content. Then in 2013, the state began allowing customers to buy up to three pints on-site, rather than a limited number of samples with a prerequisite brewery tour.
The state is now home to 76 breweries and brewpubs, with approximately 30 new breweries under construction or in the planning process, according to the South Carolina Brewers Guild. The group estimates the current economic impact of craft beer in the Palmetto State to be about $650 million, up by $400 million since the 2013 pint law, sustaining approximately 1,000 jobs.
Now, brewers are eyeing four more changes to state law in 2019:
- Lowering the state's beer tax from 77 cents per gallon closer to the national average of 29 cents per gallon.
- Letting the breweries transfer their beer from one location to another without having to go through a distribution company.
- Allowing the breweries to open standalone taprooms, where they could serve their beer without brewing it on-site.
- Removing a 288-ounce limit on how much beer customers can buy from a brewery to-go.
State Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville, is planning to sponsor the legislation. A longtime craft beer supporter, Bennett pushed two other law changes last year, allowing breweries to sell liquor and participate in nonprofit events.
Proponents of the craft beer industry expect to meet some resistance due to the legislative success they've already had in recent years.
But Wesley Donehue, the co-owner of Charleston's Frothy Beard Brewing Co. along with political and corporate marketing firm Push Digital, argued that shouldn't stop lawmakers from continuing to lower the burden for new breweries trying to enter the marketplace and others looking to expand.
"We've already created new jobs, we've already helped bring back neighborhoods that were falling apart, so why should we stop now when we have a lot of momentum?" Donehue said. "You don't let off the gas when things are going right."
The principal opponents to the pro-brewery law changes have been distributors, who operate as intermediaries between suppliers and retailers. At breweries, the suppliers and retailers are the same entity, cutting the distributors out of the loop.
The Brewers Guild has been working with the S.C. Beer Wholesalers Association in recent months to alleviate some disagreements between them without needing legislation, according to Brewers Guild Executive Director Brook Bristow.
On some proposals, like reducing the beer tax, the two groups have been on the same page. But on others, like letting breweries create standalone taprooms and transfer beer between multiple locations, their business interests stand in direct conflict.
The Wholesalers Association did not respond to a request for comment.
Bennett suggested that ultimately the two groups see eye to eye on one fundamental point for both their businesses: The benefits of promoting good beer.
"At the end of the day, while these bills may appear to be beneficial to the brewers, I think it also helps the (beer) industry in general," Bennett said.