Right now, in Rhode Island you pretty much have to go to a liquor store to stock up on beer for a dinner party. A few bills under consideration in the General Assembly aim to change that. If passed, the bills would give farmers, who grow crops for beer production, special licenses to sell their craft beers at their farms and at farmer’s markets. These bills are pitting local farmers against the local liquor industry. Rhode Island Public Radio brings you two perspectives on the issue: one from a farmer, and one from a liquor store owner.
Two buckets overflowing with sap hang from a maple tree several feet away from Matt Richardson’s farm house in Exeter, about 20 miles southwest of Providence.
Richardson is harvesting sap to make test batches of a maple brown ale he’s brewing for family and friends.
On this day, he walks to his barn carrying four gallons of sap in old soda kegs. Over a large outdoor burner in his barn, Richardson begins to make beer.
He’s stirring big pots of water and sap and pouring malted barley in a large container to mash the grains. The barn fills up with smells of sweet oatmeal and freshly baked bread as Richardson mashes the barley.
Richardson would like to work on his farm full-time. It’s a traditional Christmas tree farm. But Christmas comes only once a year. Then his season is over. That’s why he’s gearing up to open a brewery on his farm later this summer.
“Right now we would have to open as a traditional manufacture brewery on the farm here, because that’s really the only license available for us in Rhode Island right now,” said Richardson.
With a manufacturer’s license, Richardson can sell only 72 ounces per person at a time, either in a six pack or in a large bottle known as a growler. A small step forward, said Richardson, but it’s not enough.
“The more I thought about it, it would be like telling someone who grows corn and grows tomatoes, ‘You can have people come to your farm stand, but you could only sell them two tomatoes at a time, and that’s it.’ And it’s very hard to run a farm that way,” said Richardson.
Bills in the general assembly would lift that 72 ounce restriction with a farm brewery license. Richardson could sell as much of his crafted beer on his farm, just as local wineries in the state sell wine from their wineries. Another set of bills would give both farm breweries and wineries a special license to sell at farmer’s markets.
“So something like a farm brewery would let us go from very seasonal sales to more of a consistent year round business, which would be great,” said Richardson.
Richardson is renovating the barn where he’s making test batches. One side of the barn, he’ll have the brew house. On the other side, he’ll have a tourist tasting room, where people can watch the brewing happen through a window as they sample his beer. He’s adding a second level to dry the hops he grows.
If passed, the bills would require a good percentage of the beer crops to come from the local brewing farm, and a larger percentage to come from Rhode Island.
“Ultimately, what this does is that it keeps this land viable and in production,” said Ken Ayars, chief of the agriculture division at the Department of Environmental Management. Ayars said some people might not consider beer or wine a necessity, but the crops to make those drinks are part of our food system.
Ayars said it’s important for farmers to develop business models that could help them withstand pressures, such as pressures to sell their land for development. That’s why many state agencies and nonprofits, including the state Department of Business Regulation and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, support removing layers of red tape when it comes to alcohol sales.
“So in this case, we’re saying, we will allow some reform to allow this to happen, but it’s required that you produce in state from our land and that’s one of the reasons why we’re supportive of the bill as well,” said Ayars. “We’re relying upon ourselves and our land to produce food, or drink.”
But these bills are facing strong opposition from the liquor lobby, said state Sen. Dawson Hodgson, who introduced one of the bills.
“I think that our case to be made is that this is no threat to existing economic activity and no threat to existing monopolies of alcohol distributors,” said Hodgson. “It is simply an opportunity for a new business to grow up in Rhode Island.”
Hodgson said the bills would help promote the farm-to-table movement while creating more jobs in agriculture.
But those in the liquor industry worry approval of these bills will have an unintended negative impact on their businesses.
Tom Saccoccia owns Sak’s Centredale Liquors & Wine Cellar in North Providence. His father and uncle opened the store 65 years ago. He said most liquor stores are small and family-owned.
“We’re kind of the last of mom and pop stores,” said Saccoccia. “Everything else has been sucked up by big box stores and what have you. We’re just local, just like the farmers are local, we’re local, too.”
Saccoccia said being in the liquor industry is very expensive and highly regulated. He said they’re limited to sell only liquor, tobacco, and lottery tickets.
“It would be nice for me to be able to sell cheeses, but we’re not allowed to; I mean, cheeses would be ideal, but we’re not allowed to,” said Saccoccia.
And there are other regulations.
“We’re not even able to have an outdoor sale,” said Saccoccia. “We couldn’t sell in our parking lot. We have to stay in the building. So some of these bills come up and they fly in the face of all the regulations we’re bound by.”
Saccoccia said the bills under consideration to grant farm brewery licenses and special licenses to sell at farmer’s markets don’t seem fair. He and his colleagues in the liquor industry would like to keep things the way they are. He said locally produced craft beers and wines have a home in nearly 300 liquor stores across the state.
He pulls a bottle from his own shelf to prove his point. “This is one of the local whiskeys from South County,” notes Saccoccia. “They also make vodka called Loyal 9. It’s outstanding vodka. It’s very good. Not because it’s local, but quality-wise, blind-tasting, it’s outstanding vodka.”
The bills under consideration are modeled after legislation passed in other states, such as in New York and Massachusetts. They’ve done well in those states, spurring new farm-based businesses.
Sen. Dawson Hodgson said there’s no appetite in Rhode Island to change the status quo when it comes to where we sell liquor. He’s hopeful the bills will become law this second time around – it’s his last term in office. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if takes a third round to get these bills passed.