ANNAPOLIS — Frederick County lawmakers agreed on Friday to uncap local beer producers.
A bill this session with the county delegation’s support will carve out an exception for small breweries in Frederick County by raising the cap on the number of barrels of beer they can produce. The breweries will also be able to sell up to 4,000 barrels of beer at a second location and double their distribution limit.
“I don’t have any objection to the second location. I’m sure there’s going to be objection from others on the limits on self-distribution,” said Sen. Ron Young (D-District 3) at the delegation’s meeting on Friday.
Nick Manis, a lobbyist working on behalf of the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association, objected for the third straight week to the proposal. Small breweries would be able to market and sell up to 6,000 barrels of their own beer — instead of the current 3,000 barrels — if the bill passed. This would undercut business for existing wholesale companies, he said.
“This has statewide ramifications, because it’s very difficult to do something in one county and not in the rest of the state, especially when it’s an issue like this,” Manis told the delegation.
Frederick County is home to the most breweries in all of Maryland, but only two breweries — and three more being licensed — that may be able to increase production if the cap changed, said Kevin Atticks, a lobbyist on behalf of the Brewers Association of Maryland. The county is also home to an additional four farm breweries, which could increase distribution, if the second half of the bill passes.
One of those farm breweries is Milkhouse Brewery near Mount Airy owned by Tom Barse.
Barse grows his own hops to produce a modest 500 barrels a year, which is well under the 15,000-barrel cap for his licenses. But he also invests approximately $100,000 a year to purchase Maryland-grown grains and agricultural products for his beer. Increasing the distribution caps would help him expand, he said.
“It gives you an opportunity to plan on how to grow your business. That’s why these limits have always been wrong, because it limits how you plan to grow your business,” said Barse, who also serves on the government affairs committee of the Brewers Association of Maryland.
It’s not just Frederick County that is considering raising its production and distribution caps, however. Montgomery County is considering a similar bill. For this reason, the wholesalers plan to pursue a statewide solutions to the proposed distribution cap increases, Manis said.
Manis did not return a call requesting comment in time for publication.
Despite the objection from wholesale organizations, the delegation gave its unanimous support to the changes. Delegates Dan Cox (R-District 4) and Barrie Ciliberti (R-District 4) were absent from the meeting and vote.
Delegate Jesse Pippy (R-District 4), who previously served on the Frederick County liquor board and stepped down to run for office, said he could only speculate on the fates of the delegation’s liquor bills. He expected the ones with statewide impact to face the biggest battles in committee, including the production and distribution bill discussed Friday.
“I think the delegation’s intent is to show we support our manufacturers in our county ... and we encourage them to be successful,” Pippy said.
Right now, brewers in Frederick County are being artificially constrained by production, sale and distribution caps, Atticks said in an interview on Thursday.
Frederick County is under added pressure because neighboring communities have more relaxed alcohol laws. Loudoun County, Virginia, in particular has sought to move businesses out of Maryland, he said. West Virginia and Pennsylvania, similarly, have more relaxed rules than Maryland.
The goal is not to blow off the caps completely — though it would double production limits from 22,500 to 45,000 barrels and distribution limits from 3,000 to 6,000 barrels — but to give the breweries a road map for the next 15 to 20 years to expand without having to come back to the General Assembly annually for small changes, Atticks said.
“We’re saying raise limits to reasonable amounts [so] our brewers have generational change,” Atticks said.
While the delegation moves forward with one exception, County Executive Jan Gardner pumped the brakes hard on another for agricultural tourism.
Young drafted a bill at the request of the Brewers Association of Maryland, which would allow up to 200 people to occupy a farm building for an agritourism event without meeting certain building codes. Currently, the county allows up to 50 people.
“The county has not — and will not — exempt an applicant from building code requirements for public gatherings in barns,” Gardner wrote in a strongly worded letter to the Frederick County delegation on Friday.
Gardner said in an interview later Friday that she had no idea this bill was coming. The county has not had problems with traditional agritourism venues, such as pumpkin patches, hayrides, corn mazes and Christmas tree farms, but craft beverage events and wedding venues on farms were raising new concerns and, a year ago, she convened a work group with the Frederick County Farm Bureau and Atticks to discuss it.
As a result, a provision was added under the county’s agritourism code that would allow craft beverage events by permit, but they were not to be exempted from building codes. The proposed bill in front of the delegation, however, appears to try to undo that work, she said.
“I wanted to have it drafted so if we were going to go forward with it, it’d be ready. ... Evidently, she isn’t too fond of it,” Young said on Friday.
The Maryland Farm Bureau supports the occupancy increase for traditional agritourism in Frederick County, said Colby Ferguson, director of government relations for the state chapter. This would include existing Christmas tree farms and corn mazes, some of which were potentially nearing the 50-person cap on busy days.
By law, to accommodate 200 people, the building must be “structurally sound and in good repair” and have egresses that meet or exceed the International Building Code. Gardner did not know, however, if the county was allowed to supersede life and safety codes for agritourism.
If the bill moves forward, she may have to consider moving the craft beverage event permit out of the agritourism section of county law, Gardner said.
“It’s the craft beverage case, which is completely different. It’s not seasonal like the rest of these,” Gardner said.