Visit Olympia on any day during the legislative session and you’ll find some group rallying on the capitol’s steps. But the throng of 100 brewers, bar owners, and general fans of beer who assembled one drizzly afternoon in April, hoisting signs saying “Crush Malt, Not Jobs” was a milestone for Washington’s notoriously laid-back craft beer industry. 

They came from Seattle, Bellingham, and Bremerton to protest legislation that threatened to kneecap their business. On July 1 a temporary tax on beer sales was slated to expire. In the past that tax applied to big brands like Miller and Bud, but House Democrats drafted a bill that would renew it and apply it, at a rate of 15 cents per gallon, to sales from any of the state’s nearly 200 craft breweries. (Governor Jay Inslee made a similar proposal at 50 cents per gallon.) If it passed, glorified garage operations as well as bigger stalwarts like Elysian and Fremont Brewing would see their tax payments jump, with beer prices likely to follow.

The nasty legislative surprise that inspired the gathering “was partly our fault,” allows Heather McClung, cofounder of Schooner Exact Brewing Company and president of the Washington Brewers Guild. “We’re a grassroots volunteer organization; we don’t make these connections as well as we should.” In contrast to the state’s well–organized wine industry, its brewers gather mostly to trade recipes and drink beer, not to think strategically about the industry at large. The thrust of the brewers’ message in April: Washington has a thirst for craft beer so big that producers can’t keep up. Ease up on the tax hikes and we’ll grow, keep hiring, and produce more beer so drinkers will spend more money in the state.

The beer community’s outcry caught the attention of legislators like House Finance Committee chair Reuven Carlyle, and House Democrats dropped the bill. “This is the first time in recent history that an issue has been so detrimental to our industry,” McClung says, “and that we’ve shown such a strong response.”

 

Published: July 2013

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