The Festival Wrap-up – Part 2: The other side of the table
July 7, 2013

After thinking about all of the things that made the festival enjoyable for participants, it is now time to turn to the ever-growing list of complaints that have been coming from brewers, organizers and volunteers – specifically about Maine beer festival laws.

I will preface this post by saying that I am not a legal expert, but I have looked over these legal matters with several people more knowledgeable than myself. The confusing and sometimes overlapping beer laws in Maine are a murky swamp to wade through, so I am sure there are elements I may not have completely correct. But the mere fact that they are murky is a problem in and of itself.

Immediately after the Festival’s conclusion, a few interviews and stories started to pop up about the organizer’s dissatisfaction with the fest.

Beer fest organizer: We won't come back to Maine (Press Herald)
"Dan Shelton, owner of Shelton Bros… said he lost money on the Portland festival, and found the state laws governing beer festivals to be confusing and 'fetishistic.'"
Portland beer fest regulations leave sour taste in organizer's mouth (Bangor Daily News)
“Maine is a great beer state and Portland’s a great beer town,” Shelton said. “We were all enthusiastic about Portland, but then we started to learn about these laws, and that’s when it started going sour for us.
The Festival US – From the Volunteers perspective (If My Coaster Could Talk, BDN Blog)
"Sessions one and two started on time but were definitely understaffed, with lack of support volunteers were not able to take breaks, Maine laws prohibit brewers from pouring so they were not able to help relieve volunteers so they could use the restroom or get food." 

 

So what laws are we talking about? There are several different types of festivals that can be held in Maine, and each type has its own restrictions. This patchwork of laws makes it confusing for outside organizers to come in and try to organize a festival if they are not completely familiar with the law. In this case, I believe that at least one of the complaints on the below list is also a result of misinterpretation of the law, which would add another layer of complexity.

To summarize the articles, the main complaints, from volunteers and organizers were the following:

  1. Brewers were not legally allowed to pour their own beer, which dramatically increased the number of volunteers needed, leading to volunteer shortages during the later session(s).
  2. There was a limit of 48 oz. of beer per participant per four hour session, which some say decreased overall ticket sales and was a hassle to enforce.
  3. Volunteers were forbidden to (even responsibly) sample the beer they were pouring, leading to some ill-informed volunteers and frustrated brewers standing by.

Let’s start with the basics. According to the Press Herald article, festival organizer got a “catered event” license because it was the only one available to them, as the special §1052-B. Special taste-testing festival license [1] is offered up only once per brewer per year. The requirements for the “taste testing festival” license includes the 48 oz. pour limit, and requires the samples to be counted/monitored (i.e., through tickets). It also does not specify who can serve the beer. But, according to multiple sources, this was not the license they got.

From as far as I have been able to tell, the license that they did get was “§1052. Off-premise catering at planned events or gatherings.” [2] The purpose of this type of license is to allow for tastings “at planned events or gatherings to be held at locations other than the licensee’s premises.” However, this license contains no such restrictions on pour limits, and does not specify who may or may not pour the beer. However, because it is a “catered” event, it means that the beer has to be handled by the caterers (and subsequently the volunteers they “hire” to cover the event). I could envision a shady loophole in which the caterers could have hired the brewers to volunteer themselves, but I don’t have access to a lot of information on the caterer’s end to verify whether that was an option that was ever discussed. Certainly a little more clarity in the law itself would have been useful.

However, the supposed pour limit confounds me, and apparently I’m not alone on this. In the Press Herald article, Lt. Scott Ireland (head of the Maine Liquor Licensing and Compliance Division) identified that there was no such limit with this type of license, and called the assertion “completely false.”

Ireland said another license does have a 48-ounce limit, but not the one Shelton used. The only limitation in the catering license, he said, is that it can’t be used to serve “never-ending” drinks.

“As a catering event, as long as (the public) knows it’s a set price for a certain number of drinks, it could be four drinks, it could be 14 drinks,” Ireland said. “They were not limited in any way to 48 ounces this weekend.”

So it sounds as if there was confusion, and kind of a mix and match understanding happening from the organizer’s perspective. In planning an event this large, in an unfamiliar state, I can understand how this could happen. What I am most concerned about, however, is that the volunteers and the state got a bit of a bad name for having such laws, and for requiring organizers to jump through hoops to accomplish their goals.

So what do we do about it? There are more layers to this, and I could go into a lot of detail about other downsides of the type of license that they chose to use. Even if they were able to use the better-fitting “fest” license, there is still room for improvement in the law. Here are three things that we could take up arms to fight, while walking away from this experience with our heads held high.

1. Make the “fest” license (the one specially designed for festivals) open to more than 1 per brewery/year. This would allow for a diversification of the beer festivals in Maine, and would bring more positive economic impact for more than one group per year. Also, the consequences affiliated with having the catered permit (i.e., brewers not being able to pour the beer) would not be an issue if it was made more available.

2. Define, clearly, in each type of license, who is permitted to pour the beer. The “fest” license doesn’t say either way who can be pourers, which could lead to confusion.

3. Remove the 48 oz. pour limit or at least the statements that require tickets to be taken to account for festival tasting. I think this is a case in which the industry can police itself. There are already good guidelines in place for not serving to “over served” patrons, and I don’t think that physically counting tickets is needed to help brewers to try and keep people responsible.

I would also like to call upon either the Maine Brewer’s Guild or the State Liquor Commission to publish a guide for anyone that wants to host a beer tasting or festival. Clearly, a flowchart and some kind of official guidance was needed in order to guide out-of-state organizers towards the “right” permits and make sure they are given consistent and clear information. If we can’t change the laws to be clearer, perhaps we need additional guidance on how to navigate them. Perhaps a lesson can be learned from the Brewer’s Association – a national organization promoting and supporting craft beer. They produce documentation, guides and support to wade through the red tape and forms involved in opening a brewery – lowering the barrier to entry and helping more folks get involved in craft beer.

With a little bit of reflection and clarity, I think we can all make this “sour” experience into something sweet for both beer lovers and fest organizers alike.