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Grant Bosse: The Brew Hampshire Revolution

August 28. 2017 10:07PM

DAN INNIS never expected to spend so much time talking about beer.

The Republican state senator, halfway through his first term in Concord, chairs the Senate Commerce Committee. He was expecting to deal with complicated and controversial issues like health care. He didn’t know he would be on the front lines of New Hampshire’s never-ending liquor wars.

“I knew we had antiquated laws in New Hampshire, but I don’t think I understood how antiquated, or how political the current structure has become,” Innis says. “Every time you want to make a change, someone is concerned about how it would affect their corner of the alcohol world.”

The state recently unveiled a memorial statue to Gov. John Winant on the grounds of the state library in Concord, but his most lasting memorial may be New Hampshire’s byzantine liquor control system. Winant was governor in 1933 when federal Prohibition was repealed, much to his dismay. He agreed to lift state laws barring alcoholic beverages, but only if the state could maintain a monopoly on alcohol sales. The first three state liquor stores opened in 1934.

Over the past 83 years, we’ve loosened up our liquor laws somewhat, but New Hampshire remains one of 16 “control states,” where the state government directly controls the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages.

We have different rules and licenses for four categories — liquor, wine, fortified wine, and beer — that determine who can make them, who can distribute them, who can sell them, and who can serve them.

The law covering just the various license requirements takes up 31 single-spaced pages, and the war over these rules never ends.

A key battle fought six years ago helped create a small-scale craft brewery industry in New Hampshire.

Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont were at the forefront of consumer demand for high-quality craft beer, and are home to some of the top-rated breweries in the country. But New Hampshire made it hard for new breweries to start up.

In 2011, the Legislature adopted a new nanobrewery license, exempting tiny breweries that make less than 2,000 gallons per year from many of the rules that apply to larger competitors.

The nanobrewery license added a new rung at the bottom of the ladder of liquor regulations, making it easier for home brewers to turn their hobby into small businesses.

New Hampshire now has a booming craft beer industry, with 71 breweries, 17 annual beer festivals, and dozens of pubs and specialty stores catering to craft beer drinkers.

My personal favorite is Burn the Ships, a smoky IPA from Able Ebenezer Brewing Co. I also recommend Full Clip from Stoneface Brewing Co., and Kelsen Brewing Co.’s Paradigm Brown Ale.

Scott Schair, executive director of the Beer Distributors of New Hampshire Association says the nanobrewing law “increased access for consumers to get local beer.” Schair says the proliferation of small shops has also increased strain on the Liquor Commission’s enforcement division.

Many of these small-scale brewers are content to stay small. But Innis says it’s too hard to grow beyond the 2,000-gallon limit if a small company can’t afford to expand to the 10,000-gallon level of a licensed beverage manufacturer.

“Allowing them an easier entry is fine, but the limit is really low,” Innis says.

Innis thinks it is past time to bulldoze the maze of New Hampshire’s liquor laws.

“I’ve always felt we need a comprehensive reform, but that’s a tall order,” Innis argues.

He expects the Legislature to keep chipping away with incremental improvements, like nanobreweries.

When I was working for the state Senate from 2013 to 2015, skirmishes broke out over rectifiers, who blend and flavor alcohol into a new product, and over growlers, refillable glass bottles popular for craft beer.

The Battle of the Growlers is still going on. Breweries don’t want to allow bars to refill growlers. Bars don’t want them to be sold in stores. No matter what the Legislature decides, someone will be unhappy. Should breweries have to refill their competitors containers? And there are sanitation concerns.

Schair says modernizing state licensing and reporting, still largely done on paper, would help. He’s looking to Washington to pass the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which would reduce excise taxes on small-scale breweries.

These are the next battlefields in New Hampshire’s liquor wars. Innis thinks the Legislature is micromanaging the industry, and holding back innovation.

Winant’s legacy is that state government strictly controls alcohol in New Hampshire — and profits from it.

“We know people drink. We know we make money off it. But we don’t want to make it easy on anyone,” Innis concludes.

Grant Bosse is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News.

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