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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: NC breaks its beer-regulation system

A server holds up a craft beer sample at the Beer Camp Across America festival at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in August 2014. Microbreweries and other craft beer makers say N.C.'s rules are confusing. A server holds up a craft beer sample at the Beer Camp Across America festival at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in August 2014. Microbreweries and other craft beer makers say N.C.'s rules are confusing.

North Carolina picked a fine time to break its alcoholic beverage control system.

The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and the Alcohol Law Enforcement inexplicably chose the height of the outdoor craft beer festival season — midsummer through the many Oktoberfests — to upend the burgeoning craft beer industry in Western North Carolina with a confusing and nonsensical crackdown on rules that few knew about and understood.
Strike 1 was when ABC raided the Oskar Blues’ Burning Can Festival last month, causing a huge amount of confusion and disruption. The crackdown caused event organizers to turn the festival into a free event. That makes no sense from an enforcement point of view. Is free booze the better path to prevent intoxication?
Strike 2 happened last week when organizers of what would have been Hendersonville’s first officially sanctioned outdoor craft beer festival called off the event because of confusion over ABC and ALE permits. Half the 20 brewers pulled out because they feared they would be cited for violations of rules they did not understand and that agents could not clearly explain.

No wonder Mountain True’s announcement of the cancellation doubled as a broadside against the state alchohol regulators.
“Despite being in constant communication with ALE and ABC since early June, we were unable to get the answers we needed to proceed," the conservation nonprofit (formerly ECO) said. "In the final weeks leading up to the festival, continued ambiguity on the parts of ALE and ABC, as well as the prospect of disciplinary action, led several brewers to decline participation, diminishing the event’s core attraction. Unfortunately, due to our and others' inability to get clear and consistent answers regarding event requirements from the Alcohol Beverage Control and Alcohol Law Enforcement agencies, we determined that it was impossible to ensure the kind of high-quality event our community deserves.”
The permitting debacle got the attention of City Council members and state legislators, who started making inquiries about what was going on in the two agencies. The fear and chaos surrounding the regulatory environment set off a rumor around town Wednesday that Sierra Nevada and Southern Appalachian Brewery were going to pull out of the popular Rhythm & Brews concert Thursday night.
“Not unexpectedly, I heard from both a county commissioner and a Hendersonville City councilman about the (Brew Fest) cancellation,” state Rep. Chuck McGrady reported in a newsletter he issued on Friday.
McGrady said his office spoke with ABC and ALE officials and he spoke with Sierra Nevada. The craft brewers did pour as usual at the Hendersonville concert. But before there’s a strike 3, McGrady and others should make the two state agencies stop suppressing the vitality of the fastest growing segment of the hospitality industry in the North Carolina mountains.
“The state’s alcoholic beverage laws have been slow to change,” McGrady pointed out. “While this is understandable given how long the entire nation struggled with alcoholic beverage regulation, including two amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it is time for reform of our state laws regulating alcoholic beverages.
“Over the past four years, we’ve in a piecemeal fashion addressed issues like selling beer and cider in growlers and allowing more on-site opportunities for breweries to sell their products," McGrady added. "My hope is that we see a more comprehensive revision of our state’s laws governing alcoholic beverages in the near future.”
Here’s hoping he gains many allies in the effort.

A threshold question is why the enforcement is under the authority of two agencies instead of one. Although both the ALE and ABC Commission are part of the Department of Public Safety, they are separate agencies. The ALE is a branch of the SBI. The functions of the ABC are governed  by an appointed commission. ALE enforces some parts of the alcohol laws and rules while ABC polices others.
In an online exchange following the Burning Can snafu, one server described the confusion.
“The problem is that the festivals, as a ticketed event, are a legal gray area jurisdiction-wise (and the ABC agrees),” the server said in a post. “… It's basically a temporary private club with off-premise permits. So, to me, the ALE's recent involvement is frustrating because it’s clearly targeting the brewers (and event staff) rather than the masses (who cause the majority of legal problems).”
We are not talking about ignoring or loosening regulations. The rules clearly must bar the serving of beer to minors and to intoxicated people. Clearly, servers, even volunteer servers at fundraisers, need a certain amount of training. Clearly, too, the system needs to be examined and reformed. We've got a lot riding on getting this right.

In the past month, in the hottest craft beer region of the South, the North Carolina ABC Commission and the ALE have proved they’re not ready for prime time.