Let Georgia’s new happy hour begin: For the first time since Prohibition, local craft breweries and distilleries, beginning Friday, will be legally allowed to sell limited amounts of their beer and spirits directly to customers.
The new law ends a decades-old standoff that had been especially tense between the state’s growing number of craft brewers and beer wholesalers, who fought for years to protect their position as the middleman between manufacturers and retailers.
It also comes as several of the state’s craft alcohol makers have announced plans to expand publicly accessible production facilities. Richland Distilling Co., for example, has new site coming in Brunswick, and Avondale Estates’ Wild Heaven Beer is building a second brewery and taproom near the Atlanta Beltline’s Westside Trail.
When Gov. Nathan Deal signed what was known as Senate Bill 85 earlier this year, it drew cheers from local makers who said it will be a boon for local businesses and their fans.
“Now we are able to show them more of what we can do, and the freedom to purchase beer makes it viable to do so,” said Nick Purdy, the president of Wild Heaven Beer. “What SB 85, combined with the rare chance to be on the Atlanta Beltline, gives us is the reason to not simply add on to our existing location or build out of state, but to be even more present and visible here at home. Without SB 85, we’d have not likely opened a second Georgia brewery.”
Georgia was one of the last states in the country to allow limited direct sales from the manufacturer. The change is considered a major victory for the state’s growing craft alcohol industry as well as an important compromise from the state’s alcohol wholesalers, who this year signed off on helping push the new rules forward.
Georgia’s “three-tier” system of alcohol distribution previously only allowed manufacturers making beer or spirits to sell directly to wholesalers or distributors, who then sold the goods to the retail shops and restaurants or bars that customers could then buy it from.
The system came into play as Georgia and the nation emerged from Prohibition, and it aimed to prevent monopolies especially by national beer manufacturers. The rules, in essence, prevented them from doing it all: making the alcohol, selling it and delivering it themselves to anyone who wanted it.
One result was that the wholesalers and distributors developed into a politically powerful force to protect their place in the system, becoming major donors over the past several decades to lawmakers and statewide elected officials as they lobbied against any change.
The first step toward direct sales in Georgia came in 2015, when the state agreed to allow breweries and distilleries to sell tours of their manufacturing plants and allow tourgoers to then take limited amounts of alcohol home.
It was a complicated system, however, that at one point further exacerbated tension when officials with the state Department of Revenue surprised craft makers with an unexpected regulation change over how the tours could be priced. Tweaks to the rules sought to ease that disagreement and allowed breweries and distilleries to offer food on site.
According to new guidelines issued by state revenue officials, those regulations remain. But now, starting Friday, customers can buy up to a case of beer a day from breweries and up to three 750-milliliter bottles a day from the state’s craft distillers.
The number of breweries, meanwhile, just keeps growing. The National Brewers Association said there were 28 breweries open in Georgia at the end of 2013. Last year, it said, there were more than 50.
“It’s not just good, it’s great,” Martin Smith, the executive director of the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association, said of the change. “It’s great for the industry, lets Georgia’s businesses keep booming in what’s already a great place for beer brewing.”