Go to any grocery store in North Carolina, or nearly anywhere else, and you’ll find refrigerators teeming with a variety and selection of craft beers that was unthinkable even a decade ago—lagers and ales and wheats and shandies for seemingly every taste.
Given the cornucopia of drinking selections already available, it takes a striking do-it-yourself attitude to invest time and money in home-brewing your own craft beer, much less try to make your living selling your artisanal refreshment to other tipplers. But the laws and regulations regarding alcohol sales are a fiendishly complicated tangle, and—even more so than usual—when it comes to alcohol, “I didn’t know that I couldn’t do that” is not a valid defense.
Raleigh attorney and craft beer enthusiast John Szymankiewicz founded the Beer Law Center in 2012 to help navigate brewers through this quagmire. After hearing the same questions come up again and again, Szymankiewicz decided to write a book geared towards brewers looking to start their own business. That book, “Beer Law: What Brewers Need to Know” hit (virtual) shelves in October after nearly three years of work, and has since been selling like a limited edition seasonal IPA.
“We’ve already sold a couple hundred copies. I didn’t know if there’d be a hundred people total that would care about this,” Szymankiewicz said during an interview in his office in downtown Raleigh, one of the most active hotspots for North Carolina’s craft beer scene. “So the response has been great. I have shown up to meetings, and somebody takes out the book and puts it on the table. Okay, that’s a little intimidating.”
The book explains the basics of the law in a conversational, at times even snarky voice—the sort of book one could conceivably read with a pint in one hand and book in the other. Szymankiewicz said that he wrote it with a lay audience in mind, and tried to cover the whole lifecycle of a business. Much of the early going covers universal concerns like starting a business, choosing the right type of corporate entity, and properly protecting your intellectual property.
“And then sort of over top of that basic legal framework, we’re going to lay on alcohol,” Szymankiewicz explains.
And that’s where the law gets stickier than the resin of hops. For the most part, American laws are laws of exclusion—generally, you can a do a thing unless there is a law saying that you can’t. But when it comes to alcohol, this arrangement is flipped on its head, largely as a legacy of the era of Prohibition, when home brewing was a criminal enterprise. As such, there are a lot of potential pitfalls for the unwary brewer who assumes that the law functions as it ordinarily does.
Although part of the point of the book is to empower brewers to do more things without having to call, and thus pay, a lawyer, Szymankiewicz is unconcerned about ever putting himself out of business. While the book answers a lot of the simpler legal questions, it’s also tipped off brewers about issues they wouldn’t have otherwise thought to ask about.
“In some ways the book is going to scare the pants off them and they’re going to realize that they need a lawyer. Well, checkmark, good, that’s job security for me,” said Szymankiewicz, who currently represents more than 100 breweries, most of them in North Carolina. “But then there are a lot of things that, no, you don’t need a lawyer for, but if you’re going to do it yourself, make sure that you understand some things.”
North Carolina has been a particularly good market for the craft beer boom. It has the highest number of craft breweries in the South, with more than 230 breweries and brewpubs, according to the state’s craft brewers’ guild. The high concentration of younger, white-collar professionals in its burgeoning cities has created an ideal base of consumers with the knowledge and purchasing power to support a premium product.
Further, while the state’s alcohol laws are hardly laissez-faire, they are some of the most favorable in the Southeast, which helped incubate a regional powerhouse. But if 230 breweries sound like a lot, it’s a drop in the glass compared to the workload of the state’s ABC Commission, which has been taxed by the rapid growth in breweries, distilleries, and the like. With the ABC lacking the resources needed to contemplate any regulatory overhaul, brewers will likely be working within the structures descended from Prohibition for a while longer.
Some observers think that with thousands of craft breweries now operating in America, the market is nearly tapped out, so to speak, and the craft beer bubble may be near bursting. Szymankiewicz hears those concerns too. Is it getting exceptionally difficult, he says, for new breweries to elbow their way onto stores’ limited shelf space, but the market for local beer is still a long way from saturation.
“If you want to be the local, if you want to serve mostly out of your taproom, there’s a ton of room out there, because people want to go to their local,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of movement still towards the sort of hyper-local both in ingredients and in economic support. So I think there’s a lot of support for local. You may not be able to sell your brewery to AB-InBev and retire and buy a Caribbean island, but you can make a good living.”
According to the Brewers Association, a national trade group, today more than 75 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery. Heady stuff, but Szymankiewicz notes that prior to the Civil War, almost every American would have lived within a few miles of a brewery because beer was so difficult to transport.
Even if craft brewing never again reaches quite that level of penetration, the industry appears well positioned for continued growth. And that in turn should ensure a steady market of aspiring brewers in need of legal advice.
“Overall I’ve been really excited about it,” Szymankiewicz said about the reception to his project. “I don’t know that we’ll ever make our money back on this. It was really more of a labor of love. I’ve gotten a couple of clients who’ve actually asked me to sign the book. And that’s really flattering, too.”
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan