Work of beer booster Peter Franchot's task force coming to a head

It isn’t your typical enforcer of alcohol laws who gets three beers named after him.

But Comptroller Peter Franchot is not your typical regulator.

Franchot, who has emerged as the No. 1 cheerleader for Maryland’s craft breweries, this week concludes a months-long examination of state beer laws as his Reform on Tap Task Force winds up its schedule of 10 public meetings.

It’s been a frothy experience for the three-term comptroller, who has traveled to breweries across the state to meet with industry leaders, sip beers from lager to stout and proclaim the potential of an industry that has grown from about 10 mostly small operations a decade ago to about 80 today.

Some of those breweries are chafing under Maryland’s liquor laws, which put limits on how much they can sell directly to consumers and when they can do so.

Franchot held forth this month on the benefits of unleashing the Maryland beer industry as Gov. Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp listened. Speaking at a meeting of the state’s spending panel, he said Maryland’s brewers, wineries and distillery business could grow in three to four years to a $10 billion industry.

“I don’t think the brewers are being unreasonable in asking us to please get out of the way and let them do what they’re good at: Brew good beer and sell it to the public,” the Democrat said.

Hogan, a Republican, echoed Franchot’s remarks.

“It is really unfortunate we’re doing things to hurt the industry,” he said. “But I’m with the comptroller in trying to take care of that.”

Franchot’s task force holds its final meeting Wednesday. Then the Comptroller’s Office will write recommendations to the General Assembly intended to redefine the roles of Maryland’s burgeoning beer industry and the distributors who have long held sway over state liquor law.

The office plans to release draft legislation before Thanksgiving.

Franchot launched the task force shortly after the General Assembly adjourned in April.

During the session, competing sectors of the alcohol industry fought a bruising battle over a rewrite of the state’s beer laws to attract the North American headquarters of the Guinness brewery to Baltimore County.

The Irish giant wanted the state to raise the amount of beer it could sell from its taprooms. Retailers, wholesalers and taverns have sought to limit such sales.

Lawmakers, eager to land a major tourist attraction, settled on a compromise. They quadrupled the amount brewers can sell from 500 barrels per year to 2,000.

Members of the craft brewing industry — supported by the comptroller — contended the result was unfair to existing operations. Franchot says 2,000 barrels is still one of the tightest caps in the country. He called the bill “a knife in the heart of the whole sector.”

Franchot’s reform effort might be quixotic. Already on the outs with Democratic leaders of the General Assembly, his harsh criticism of beer legislation they see as a carefully crafted compromise won him friends at the breweries but few in influential positions in the legislature.

Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the alcohol-regulating House Economic Matters Committee, said Franchot has done nothing to pave the way for any legislation the task force might propose. The Prince George’s County Democrat said Franchot did not consult with House leaders on the composition of the task force, and has not kept key lawmakers informed about its deliberations.

“I’m excited to see what the comptroller and his task force have come up with,” Davis said. “I’m sure he has all the answers and he can help us do our jobs better.”

He said he was being sarcastic.

Davis said his committee would give fair consideration to the legislation he expects to come out of the task force. But he mocked Franchot’s decision not to put proposals to a vote of the panel.

"He has the right to do that,” Davis said. “But as members of the General Assembly, we are a democracy.”

Tavern owner Jack Milani is legislative chairman for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, which represents retailers. He’s taking a conciliatory stance while waiting to see what Franchot recommends.

“We all have a part of the job to do and we need each other,” he said. The best thing Maryland can do, he said, is to help make people aware of the range of beers brewed in the state.

While Franchot’s clout in the legislature is minimal, the state’s brewers — as well as its wineries and craft distillers — have welcomed him as their champion. His Facebook page chronicles multiple visits to breweries across the state, often with pictures of the smiling comptroller enjoying the local product.

So grateful are the brewers that there are now three beers named in his honor: The Watchdog by Chesapeake Brewing Company, Franchot Comes Alive by Barley and Hops, and Saison du Franchot by Monacacy Brewing.

Franchot’s affection for the beer industry is not unrequited. This year he has held two fundraisers at Chesapeake Brewing in Annapolis and one at Black Ankle Winery in Frederick. The Maryland Brewers Association has promoted his fundraisers on Franchot’s website, and fundraiser Susan O’Brien said brewers have been opening their wallets for her candidate. How much will not be clear until campaign finance reports are filed in January.

The comptroller makes no apologies.

“This is a group of family-owned businesses that give very small amounts,” he said. “What they’re giving me is a drop in the bucket compared with what corporate alcohol lobbyists spend on legislators.”

Lobbyist Kevin Atticks represents the state brewery, winery and distillery trade associations. After years of past comptrollers dancing to the tune of the powerful and politically connected wholesalers’ and retailers’ lobbies, he said, beverage producers are thrilled to have a regulator who listens to them.

Shortly after the session, Atticks said, Franchot gave a rousing speech to a national gathering of craft brewers. When Atticks got together with the industry in September, he said, brewers were still talking about Franchot.

“It was as if we had a rock star in Maryland — someone who for the first time was representing the benefits of the beer industry,” Atticks said.

Franchot predicted that public pressure would overcome the resistance of “the Annapolis bosses” and prompt the legislature to act.

“It’s the most potent and broadly popular issue I personally have ever seen in politics,” he said. “It’s supported by everyone in the state, including all the people who voted for Hillary Clinton and all the people who voted for Donald Trump.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°