By ERIN ROLL
As Montclair Brewery opens this week, microbreweries are trying to figure out what restrictions they will be held to in the wake of the state attempting to severely regulate their operations. Last week, the restrictions were stayed, but many in the industry think not for long.
Created in 2012 by the legislature and overseen by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, limited brewery or microbrewery licenses, at a cost of $1,250 to $7,000 a year, allowed the craft beer industry to take off in New Jersey.
Montclair Brewery is classified as a microbrewery under state law. Under the 2012 law, microbreweries can produce no more than 300,000 barrels of malt alcohol a year, with each barrel having a capacity of 31 gallons. They must maintain a warehouse; limit retail to wholesalers, in-state festivals, out-of-state distributors; hold tours to sell beer on-site; sell kegs for off-site consumption; and not sell food.
Through the years, the number of New Jersey breweries has grown to 100. And they have become a community center of sorts with people holding private events, fundraisers, yoga, music and art events and even pet adoptions. The no-food rule has been circumvented through a collaboration with neighboring restaurants who leave their menus at the brewery and deliver to tasters who ordered.
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In September, Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control Director David P. Rible wrote up new proposals that limited the brewery to 25 on-site events such as art nights, yoga, music gatherings and quiz nights, 12 special permits for off-site events events, 52 private parties a year in which only beer made on the premises and only small pre-packaged food such as chips or pretzels can be served. Whether food deliveries would be allowed is up in the air, but most brewery owners say no.
The ruling has since been suspended, after the state received complaints from brewery owners and frequenters that the rules were too restrictive.
“As a result of these visits, meeting with stakeholders, and discussions with the owners of the breweries, it has become apparent that there is significant confusion in the industry about what constitutes an appropriate tour and what constitutes permissible activities that may take place on a licensed premises, particularly in the tasting rooms of the limited breweries,” Rible stated.
Brewery owners are now in a wait-and-see mode.
Lisa Coryell, a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General, said the ABC would not comment on the matter beyond Rible’s statement.
Denise Ford Sawadogo and her husband, Leo, have been working to get Montclair Brewery off the ground since 2014. The licensing has been good to go, but they had to wait for Montclair to issue the brewery’s Certificate of Occupancy before the license was actually issued.
Sawadogo admitted that opening during the changing landscape could be confusing.
She questioned what constituted a tour of the brewery before a tasting takes place. The law doesn’t define a tour, Sawadogo said. There are safety concerns if people other than brewery staff are allowed into the brewhouse where the tanks and other equipment are, she said.
The couple would also like to partner with area restaurants for food deliveries, and currently have a “BYOF” (bring your own food) notice on the website, but are concerned with the regulations concerning food in the breweries.
“We want to be partners with our community,” Sawadogo said.
Brewers Guild of New Jersey President Eric Orlando said the special ruling, even though it might not have been perfect, did offer some predictability to brewery owners.
“Now we’re kind of in a gray area, kind of a limbo,” he said.
For instance, he said, the tour requirement was already on the state’s books. But the ABC allowed some leeway. Brewers could conduct tours by actually showing customers around the brewery, provide video tours on their website or hand out literature describing the brewery, he said.
He advised brewery owners to be respectful of other beer sellers, including stores and restaurants.
“We want them to know they’re our partners in trying to sell New Jersey beer,” he said.
For now, he said the industry is under a microscope.