***Update*** It looks as if the bill is going to pass with the grandfather clause intact. This was easy to do because the only people it hurts are those without a brewery in their town. ***
***Update from the comptroller’s office***
Comptroller Franchot will make a major announcement involving Maryland’s alcohol industry during a tour tomorrow [Tuesday, April 11, 12:45 p.m.] of Attaboy Beer in Frederick. The Comptroller’s visit comes just hours after the conclusion of the Maryland General Assembly session that saw passage of legislation that will severely restrict growth of Maryland’s thriving craft beer industry.The Comptroller’s visit comes just hours after the conclusion of the Maryland General Assembly session that saw passage of legislation that will severely restrict growth of Maryland’s thriving craft beer industry.

As the Maryland legislature struggles with the notion of how to deal with the growing craft beer industry in the state, it keeps bumping up against a clear lack of understanding about how beer works in small communities. Living on the Eastern Shore, it is a common (and frankly boring) complaint that the government is too Baltimore-centric. I tend to hate those arguments because they lack imagination, but economic development in small, rural towns truly has been misunderstood and (maybe unintentionally) mischaracterized.

At issue is a production brewery which for the purposes of focus and clarity I’ll define as a brewery that makes and distributes beer and sells pints. I documented this the rise of the Eastern Shore Brewery in my book Eastern Shore Beer. From Evolution to Burley Oak to Eastern Shore, in the beginning brewers planned on having the kind of operation the Maryland legislature nearly made into law. They were going to just make and sell beer without focusing on pint sales in the taproom. What became clear about this approach in practice is that, without the ability to sell pints in the neighborhood, the business would fail or at least grow very slowly.

Again: A production brewery that can’t draw a crowd in a rural area probably can’t stay liquid enough to succeed. I don’t know if this is much of a secret. The legislature’s initial suggestion is that production breweries just could get a different license, a brewpub license for instance. It’s kind of like if you wanted to open a barber shop and the state would only give you a license for a spa. It has no value if it isn’t the kind of business you want to be in.

Accidentally discouraging growth

The fall back position during the recent debate was that all the existing breweries would be grandfathered in, but new breweries would be held to different standards. The thought was that everyone who already had a brewery would be happy. And maybe they are. The trouble is, it is a big town solution. There is no limit to the number of taprooms even a burg the size of Salisbury can sustain, but more rural places that couldn’t sustain a brewpub would be stuck, which is too bad.

I live in Delmar, so looking across the state line at places like 3rd Wave, Mispillion River and 16 Mile that have become their own town centers, I see how craft beer can benefit smaller, rural communities. The brewers brew and distribute beer and invite food trucks to park outside and sell food. It’s symbiotic: one entrepreneur who wants to make beer but not be in the restaurant business and another who wants a restaurant but not the hassle of a liquor license. It provides small rural towns with multiple successful businesses where none could otherwise exist.

This kind of relationship could be the future of sustainable small town economic development, pumping money in and raising property values the way these set-ups have all over both the state and the country. The fact that any more accommodation is being considered for multinationals like Diageo (that don’t make stuff here and sell it here) is something that oughtn’t be ignored by anyone who claims to be pro-small business.

Here on the Shore, where food trucks and breweries work so well together, maybe it is something we just take for granted, but both are significant parts of our economy. This Friday night, I’ll walk across the state line into Delaware and have a couple pints with my neighbors and maybe grab a little something from whatever food truck happens to be there that evening. Millions of craft beer drinkers all over the country likely will do the same. It would be too bad if Maryland decided that that isn’t the kind of business and community atmosphere it wanted to support.