Food/Drink Rant

NJ’s new regulations on craft breweries are impossibly stupid

By limiting everything from happy hours to trivia nights to selling coffee, the restrictions stifle the natural growth of the local craft brewery becoming a community hub for people, artisans, chefs, nonprofits and other businesses, and more

What a buzzkill. Ridiculous new state regulations on New Jersey craft breweries went into effect on July 1, restricting, among other things, the number of events (like live music and trivia nights) they can host and extending a prohibition on selling food other than popcorn, pretzels and the like. Brewers can’t tell food trucks to set up in their parking lots. Happy hours are banned. Pop-up craft markets? Nah-uh . Coffee? No way.

This is an asinine, uniquely Jersey, bureaucratic fuck-up that’ll continue to stifle a craft beer industry that has grown in spite of the state’s regulations.

What’s more dumbfounding is that these regulations are the result of years of coordinated outreach to brewers, community members and organizations, restaurants and bars. That is, a lot of thought went into this, and the rules still stink.

Brewers Guild of New Jersey Executive Director Eric Orlando says the organization was part of the rulemaking process but is ultimately “disheartened” by the ruling, saying many folks have become accustomed to their local breweries serving as a vital community gathering space. 

“Our organization offered several proposed changes in the last two years to regulators with the hopes that they would become part of these conditions in the interim and become the foundation of more permanent industry regulations moving forward,” Orlando says. “Instead, breweries in the state, still struggling from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now also impacted by record inflation and ongoing supply chain issues, will be limited in their ability this summer and the foreseeable future.”

These are some of the more ridiculous regulations: 1) Breweries are limited to holding only 25 on-site events and attending 12-offsite events per year; 2) Breweries must not offer a free drink as a gesture of goodwill, or hold happy hours; 3) Breweries can’t sell coffee; 4) Breweries can’t run pop-up shops or craft sales; and 5) Breweries can’t “collaborate or coordinate” with food vendors (including food trucks) to provide on-site food.

Apart from being impossibly stupid, these changes stifle community growth. For instance, the food truck industry in other states has allowed people without the means to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant to make money, build a fanbase and grow their business. They often camp out at breweries, but with that possibility thrown out by the rules, we’re stifling hundreds of entrepreneurs.

Breweries also can’t hold pop-up shops in their spaces, meaning artisans have one fewer local place to sell their wares and young artists and craftspeople might just move out of state to more friendly environs.

And, 25 on-site events per year? Less than one every two weeks? Don’t we want to support live music, which actually has a home in craft breweries, where there’s plenty of space and a receptive audience (and, often, no other music venue nearby)? How many of our readers have gone to a trivia night at a brewery recently? Why the fuck would we want to restrict those?

And regarding the off-site events; at $100 a day just to get a permit from the state, breweries are going to be choosy about where they go, and they’ll be limited to only 12. So forget about more beer festivals, folks. 

These restrictions, simply put, stifle the natural growth of the local craft brewery becoming a community hub for people, artisans, chefs, nonprofits and other businesses, and others.

While other states noticed, somehow, that people like beer and that their laws should allow small business owners to open craft breweries, New Jersey was notoriously late to the game. It was only 10 years ago when the state began issuing amended, restricted licenses that loosened some laws around running a craft brewery—like allowing for on-site consumption and takeaway sales—while still restricting the industry far beyond what other states do.

With that crack in the doorway open, craft brewing in the Garden State boomed—today, there’s 134 breweries in the state, as opposed to only a handful 10 years ago. Critically, there’s room to grow—Colorado, for instance has roughly 5 times more breweries per capita than New Jersey; Vermont, 7 times more per capita.

But limiting the growth of the craft beer industry in New Jersey has practically been prescribed by state regulators. Wrote the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) in its initial rulemaking back in 2019: “The Legislature never intended the limited licenses to give craft breweries the same privileges of a consumption venue, such as a sports bar or restaurant. In recent years, however, a growing number of craft breweries began serving alcohol well beyond what the limited licenses allowed or ever envisioned.”

Reading between the lines: ‘We never intended for people to love craft beer so much. We’re not wrong, they’re wrong. So here are some rules that will prevent them from having more fun than the fun they’re already having, while also taking some cash off of craft brewers’ tables.’

Somehow dumbstruck by the industry’s growth, the ABC issued a rule in 2018 that included many of the restrictions that just went into effect on July 1. However, everyone involved in the craft beer industry said, basically, “Nah,” and the ABC rescinded its rules later that year. Some regulatory back-and-forth ensued, and these new regulations came back in 2019. The ruling last week codified those rules.

Many, many brewers are upset, of course, by the new ruling. The best, most righteous take is from Death of the Fox Brewing Company in Clarksboro:

“The ABC is depending, and perhaps expecting, that this will all die down eventually. Time is their greatest ally. For people to move on and forget about the unjust rules they just unleashed on our communities and small businesses. They will bide their time. And then they will start giving out citations, fining breweries thousands of dollars, and eventually removing our licenses for violating any of these 18 Conditions.” 

The ABC defends its rulemaking by saying it’s hampered by law. Wrote James B. Graziano, ABC acting director, in 2019: “The changes made are intended to help craft breweries promote their products and build their business while continuing to balance the concerns of other licensees and ensuring compliance with state law.”

And that’s kind of the crux of this whole issue. Some restaurateurs, and their trade groups, claim allowing breweries to sell hot food and hold regular events would create an unfair level of competition. Breweries, they say, handle the production and distribution of their product in house, thus lowering their costs, while restaurants and bars have to work with distributors and, critically, pay a ridiculously high price for a liquor license.

It’s a fair point—total fees for running a brewery are far lower than any one liqour license, often passed down and sold to the highest bidder. Because New Jersey restricts liquor licenses to 1 per 3,000 people in a municipality, there’s a finite amount of these things to go around and bids range from over $100,000 to over a million dollars. (This argument ignores the fact that capital costs in starting a brewery can exceed a million dollars, FWIW.)

So the argument is: Restaurants and bars are held back by the licenses, so craft brewers must be too.

But the problem is not craft beer, it’s that our liquor laws are antiquated. Current iterations of them were written in the post-Prohibition era, after retail alcohol businesses were snuffed out—a totally different landscape than what exists today. On top of that, municipalities can opt in to the laws (35 haven’t and are dry) and some businesses that existed before current rules were grandfathered in and their licenses have been passed down. It all makes no sense and is in need of reform.

However—and maybe rightfully so—those who own liquor licenses, and have thus absorbed that cost already, are likely hesitant to reform the state’s liquor laws (unless it comes with a refund for their license costs, which is… not likely). On top of that, an overhaul of the liquor licensing system just seems downright impossible.

But so if the argument is that craft beer needs to be brought down to create a level playing field, there’s a fundamental flaw in that logic: Breweries and restaurants/bars offer different experiences, and there’s scant evidence that patrons of one are “taking away business,” or would do so, from the other. Not to mention that many, many restaurants do not own liquor licenses and so arguing against craft breweries on their behalf is a little misleading.

One need only look, uh, anywhere else to see that breweries with restaurant programs don’t necessarily take business away from restaurants and bars. Plus, isn’t competition supposed to make products and experiences better for everyone? Speaking only for myself, I’d much rather go to a bar/restaurant with a well-curated local tap list and a killer food menu than to a brewery with only their beer and an average food menu. There’s a handful of those places in the state, but many bars and restaurants choose to defer to the lowest common denominator beers and what’s most easily provided by their distributors.

But I’m telling you, the craft beer tent is big enough to fit everyone. Though the state’s industry has grown immensely in the last 10 years, it can get so much bigger, and restaurants can be a part of that growth. Partner with a brewery until the laws change to, within the asinine laws, provide food—look at Rosemont Supper Club and Odd Bird Brewing in Stockton as a prime example, two separate businesses in the same building that naturally funnel one to the other. Have rare beers on tap from local brewers (like Brick Farm Tavern and Troon in Hopewell). Add more local brews on your tap lists (like Taphouse Grille in Hackettstown). Share event spaces. Create catering partnerships… heck, build a brewery of your own and distribute only in your restaurant. 

Get creative, but don’t pull everyone down with you.

​​Until that collaboration happens, lawmakers are already working on amending the ABC’s ruling. State Sen. Michael Testa—who, to be clear to you progressives out there, has voted against abortion access and introduced a bill banning trans kids from girl’s youth sports—plans to introduce legislation to ameliorate the situation.

“In my opinion, the ABC fell far short treating our local breweries fairly, which we must address with new legislation to aid these small businesses,” he said in a press release. He continued, not missing a chance to bash his political opponent, “These breweries, like most small businesses, suffered under Governor Murphy’s pandemic shutdowns and restrictions. To increase their burden with these new rules only adds insult to injury.”

But political change comes from social movements. And though craft beer is low on the priority list of shit we need to address in society, there are tangible communal benefits at stake, not to mention the thousands of livelihoods at risk.

Given how the state has doubled down on its ridiculous existing laws and shown a willingness to cater to restaurant industry trade groups, it’s a large task to elevate craft beer in New Jersey to the level of regulation the industry receives in other states. Wrote Death of the Fox:

“The ABC is not the bully in this scenario. They are, in fact, the tool of bullies. The special interests who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to swat breweries away like an annoying fly. That’s fine. But we can use time as well. Our ask is simple. Be persistent. Save your legislators numbers and call them a few times a week.” 

Do so here.