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N.J. breweries are fighting rules they say are holding them back

Regulations guiding food and entertainment in breweries affect the experience.

Lori White, co-owner of Zed's Beer, pours a beer at the brewery in Marlton. New Jersey breweries aren't allowed to have kitchens to make food. They also are limited to 25 events per year.
Lori White, co-owner of Zed's Beer, pours a beer at the brewery in Marlton. New Jersey breweries aren't allowed to have kitchens to make food. They also are limited to 25 events per year.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

Thirsty for a craft beer at a New Jersey brewery? Just remember a few rules:

No sipping before taking a mandatory brewery tour. No ordering nachos because there are no kitchens. You won’t find any coffee or Coke for your non-imbibing buddies, either. Expect no more than two televisions — each not permitted by the state of New Jersey to exceed 65 inches.

Be aware the brewery is allowed just 25 “special events” annually, such as trivia contests, fund-raisers, open-mic nights. There are also stipulations about advertising these events, as well as showing championship sports games like the World Series on TV.

“People say the rules can’t be as ridiculous as they sound,” said Lori White, co-owner of Zed’s Beer in Marlton. “They are.”

The New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) initiated the regulations based on 2012 state legislation that labeled brewers as manufacturers with beer-tasting rooms — not bars. The idea was to nurture breweries without siphoning business from bars and restaurants that pay $500,000 or more for liquor licenses. Brewer manufacturer licenses run from around $1,250 to $7,500.

In a statement on Thursday, ABC Director James B. Graziano said the agency will “support craft brewery owners in their efforts to grow their businesses ... and promote fairness throughout New Jersey’s robust alcoholic beverage industry.”

The ABC has long maintained it is wrongly implicated as authors of draconian regulations, saying it’s following state statute, and has fostered compromise among breweries, bars, and restaurants.

“These rules don’t exist in any other state,” said Jamie Bogner, editorial director of Craft Beer and Brewing magazine in Ft. Collins, Colo. “New Jersey makes it impossible for brewers — including limiting how much beer breweries can make.”

Currently, a bipartisan group of state legislators is sponsoring bills to loosen restrictions. Sen. Michael Testa (R., Cape May County) called the “disastrous” regulations “an affront to the freedoms breweries should enjoy.”

In September, Death of the Fox, a Clarksboro, Gloucester County, brewery sued the ABC for an “attack on small brewers.”

Starting around Thanksgiving and running through January, a group of New Jersey brewers will begin selling an India pale ale called Brew Jersey as a nationwide fund-raising mechanism to lobby the state legislature to “fix a broken system,” according to Eric Orlando, head of the Brewers Guild of New Jersey, representing 50 of the state’s 141 breweries. (Pennsylvania has around 350.)

The IPA’s recipe is being posted on BrewJersey.beer so any brewer can make and sell the beer, donating proceeds to the advocacy effort. Each can of beer will have a QR code informing consumers how to participate.

Better tippers

Brian Sappio, 43, of Marlton, is a Zed’s customer, and an entertainer who plays guitar in South Jersey breweries.

“Brewery audiences are more receptive and tip better than bar audiences,” he said. “Craft beer people are tightly knit and welcoming. It’s not a place to get drunk. You can bring your kids.”

White agreed: “Each brewery has its own culture, identity, story.” But as breweries grew more popular, she said, liquor-license holders fought to “make breweries less interesting places.”

That’s “as far from truth as can possibly be,” said Diane Weiss, executive director of the New Jersey Licensed Beverage Association.

Her organization wants breweries to succeed, she said, and to sell their beers in local bars and restaurants. “No one fears competition,” Weiss said.

But, she added, as holders of manufacturing licenses, brewers were “given privileges they weren’t entitled to: selling beer by the glass and hosting special events.”

If breweries want to be unshackled, “get the right license,” Weiss instructed, meaning the expensive liquor license.

Brewers say that because purchasing, assembling, and maintaining brewery equipment can cost $1 million or more, they’ve likely exceeded the cost of a liquor license.

Regardless, Weiss said, “we’re not lobbying against brewers. We’re lobbying against how they’re trying to turn their licenses into something more.”

Getting along with restaurants

Regarding restaurant owners with liquor licenses, it appears that relationships are improving.

Voorhees attorney James M. Graziano, counsel for the New Jersey Brewers Association (unrelated to ABC’s director), said, “I don’t think restaurants have a lot of issues. Bars are still lobbying against us, but restaurants know brewers don’t want to put in kitchens.”

Robin Winzinger, owner of Robin’s Nest restaurant in Mount Holly, said she’s of two minds regarding breweries: “They’re able to sell alcohol without paying enormous licensing fees. That isn’t fair. But breweries near me bring in younger crowds who eat here after drinking. I’m OK with that.”

Still, breweries’ inability to offer food other than single-serving snacks creates problems.

While customers are permitted to carry in meals from restaurants, breweries can’t make their own arrangements with those restaurants to regularly prepare and deliver food, said Jay Mahoney, who owns Third State Brewing in Burlington City.

“We can’t even coordinate with food trucks, which aren’t allowed to park outside our doors,” Mahoney said.

In Pennsylvania, things run differently: Breweries can have kitchens. In fact, commonwealth law demands that food “sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch, or dinner” be available in breweries, because drinking without eating hastens intoxication. The water in food dilutes alcohol while proteins and fats slow alcohol absorption, research shows.

“New Jersey is the only state I know that disallows food,” Bogner said.

More important than meals, brewers say, are the limitations on special events.

“The state oversteps, telling us what we can and can’t do within our own walls,” said Clint Brown, director of operations at Farmers & Bankers Brewing in Woodstown, Salem County.

Breweries have to register their 25 yearly events with the state. If they have a 26th event, the brewery risks losing its license.

“We could use up all 25 in three months,” owner Mike Melniczuk said, adding that New Jersey allows breweries to host just 52 private parties per year. “You need these things to bring people in.”

Burdened by so many restrictions, he said, “you could see Jersey breweries moving to Delaware or Pennsylvania.

“Does that make sense?”