N.H. Senate to consider bill allowing for to-go beer sales

Last modified: 3/12/2014 1:03:00 AM
Restaurants statewide could be selling beer to go by summer 2015 if a bill coming through the New Hampshire Senate this week is signed into law. The bill has unanimous support from the Senate Commerce Committee, but beer distributors said it raises public safety concerns and is bad public policy.

“All we’re trying to do is get it straight before we do it,” said Scott Schaier, executive director of Beer Distributors of New Hampshire. “When we do it, it’s going to be our reputation on the line for the industry.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, introduced the bill on behalf of a constituent who runs a small beer store. Originally, it would have allowed markets and stores that sell beer but don’t have on-premises serving licenses to sell tap beer in sealed to-go containers known as growlers. But the committee introduced an amendment that would extend the sale of to-go containers to establishments with licenses to sell on premises, such as restaurants and bars. There are roughly 4,000 of these licensed premises in the state, according to a memo on the bill written by Schaier. The bill would not go into effect until July 2015, and the amendment would also create a study committee to recommend rules that could range from container specifications to health and safety regulations.

The commerce committee unanimously supported the amendment and has placed the bill on the Senate’s consent calendar, which means it won’t get a debate on the Senate floor tomorrow unless another senator pulls it off the consent calendar.

Under current state law, establishments that produce their own beer may sell their product in growlers for customers to take with them. This applies to nanobrewers, licensed brew pubs and regular beverage manufacturers, such as Redhook or Smuttynose, Schaier said. If the bill and amendment pass, it would expand these sales to beer retailers, such as specialty beer stores with kegs on the premises, bars and restaurants. There are between 20 and 30 licensed breweries in the state that can sell growlers now, but this bill could open that up to thousands of establishments, Schaier wrote in a memo highlighting what he sees as the bill’s problems.

Schaier’s group is urging senators to either cut out the provision allowing establishments with on-premises licenses and keep only the study commission, or to kill the bill and start from scratch next year. There is a difference between a nanobrewery that sells its own product to go and a late-night restaurant selling to-go beers to young customers on their way out the door, Schaier said.

“The addition of this amendment complicates the equation further by raising even more public safety challenges,” his memo says.

But Sen. Andy Sanborn, a Bedford Republican and chairman of the commerce committee, said the bill sets up a commission specifically to address health and safety concerns. The study commission will be made up of one senator, two House members, someone from the state liquor commission, a wholesale distributor licensee appointed by the Beer Distributors of New Hampshire and a beverage manufacturer licensee appointed by Granite State Brewers Association. The committee will recommend rules by December, then the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules will decide whether to approve them.

“Before we just allow it to happen, there needs to be some discussion,” he said. “There (are) really no rules or protocol on how selling beer in growlers should be done.”

Dave Currier, co-founder of Henniker Brewing Co., said he’d like to see the commission establish more uniform standards for use of growlers. Most establishments sell their beer to go in half-gallon containers, he said, but there is no rule governing that. There should also be rules in place for proper labeling of the growlers and how late establishments can sell them, he said.

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission did not respond to requests for comment on this bill.

Sanborn owns a sports bar and restaurant in Concord, The Draft, but said selling beers to go is probably not something he would do there. To him, allowing restaurants and other establishments to sell beer to go if they choose is a matter of fairness. Patrons can take home unfinished bottles of wine under current law, and breweries are already allowed to sell growlers full of tap beer.

“If we’re allowing the process to happen with other types of alcohol, shouldn’t we be consistent?” he asked.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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