Bill would create a council for beer, wine and liquor makers

By JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Craft beer and liquor makers could soon see some money coming their way that originally only winemakers could access.

A bill introduced in the House would replace a statewide council for winemakers with the Michigan Craft Beverage Council for beer, liquor and wine makers. It’s music to some micro-beverage makers’ ears. The money they receive would go to researching and promoting all three beverages.

“Our bill really says, ‘Hey, this Grape and Wine Council has been a good thing for wine grape growers and small winemakers in Michigan. Let’s see if it can be similarly good for breweries,’” said Michigan Brewers Guild Executive Director Scott Graham.

Currently several winemakers appointed by the governor sit on the council, which is under the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Non-voting members such as Michigan State University researchers and Michigan Economic Development Corp. members advise the council on the best way to spend its money. The bill would remove those advisors and the department, which is the source of some concern.

“This bill removes us from being a voting member, and I have zero problem with that,” said Matt Blakely, the director of policy and legislative affairs with the department. “But it also removes other departments and people in the state from non-voting status that I feel is important to include in this.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township, says that the industry has changed and the council needs to reflect that change.

“I took a look at the Grape and Wine Council and said, ‘it’s no longer just that industry in Michigan now,’” Iden said. “As we look at all the craft beverages — from distilling to, obviously, the many breweries that are in my district—I’ve said we really need to expand this. We need to be inclusive of all of this.”

The bill would mandate that the new council spend half its budget on research projects and financial aid programs. Blakley doesn’t like those restrictions.

“In the current Grape and Wine Council, members decide how the money is to be spent,” he said. “I would support letting the industry members as part of this new council choose how this money is to be spent. It’s the council’s money and they should get to decide how it’s spent.”

Last year, the council received $550,000 from small winemaker, brewery and distillery licenses that the Liquor Control Commission passes on. Under the new proposed legislation, the council would receive no additional funds.

But Iden said he hopes to work with the appropriations committee to get extra money for the council.

“That’s the next step, and I need to get the framework in place first and then I can look at some specifics of where those dollars could come from in the budget process,” he said.

The research supported by the council focuses on methods of planting, growing and insect and disease prevention. Adding beer and distillers to the group would mean looking into hop and barley production, a prospect that’s of particular interest to the Michigan Craft Distillers Association.

Local distillers  usually get their ingredients from out of state, said John O’Conner, the president of the distillers group.

If researchers could look for ways to more profitably grow those ingredients in Michigan, that would be great, he said

“We’ve had no seat at the table in the past, so we just appreciate getting tacked onto it,” he said.

New to the craft industry, the distillers association started in 2014 and now has about 30 members.

The Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, which represents distributors, likes the proposal but remains officially neutral.

“Expanding the scope to include all of the craft manufacturers is probably a good thing,” said Spencer Nevins, the group’s president.

The distillers association hasn’t analyzed its Michigan revenues. Michigan wine generates $4.9 billion in economic activity, reports WineAmerica, a national industry analyst. Michigan’s beer industry is worth $10.5 billion, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute.

Michigan has almost 200 craft breweries and 195 wine producers.

The bill has been referred to the House after the Regulatory Reform committee voted it out.