Thursday, September 21, 2023

“We’re in Limbo” – Warren County Breweries Adrift in Legal Gray Zone

New Jersey is currently home to 143 breweries, according to the website New Jersey Craft Beer. It looks as if none of them will be raising a glass to Governor Phil Murphy this year.

It has to do with bill S-3038, the newest bill to figure in NJ’s complicated history of alcohol laws.

In 2019, a new set of regulations from New Jersey Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) imposed eighteen restrictions on the state’s breweries. Crucially, the new conditions limited the number of on-site events that breweries could host: a maximum of 25 on-site events, 52 private parties, and 12 off-premise events per year.

The general mayhem of the pandemic delayed enforcement of the new regulations. The ABC did not begin enforcing the new rules until last summer.

Bill S-3038 would remove those restrictions on NJ breweries. So far, the bill’s journey through the state government has been a legislative miracle: it was passed by the Senate 36-0 and by the House 77-0, receiving unanimous support by both houses.

Yet the bill’s first “no” vote may be its most important. Bill S-3038 reached the governor’s desk on June 30th, but Murphy has yet to sign it.

Without the new legislation, NJ will retain liquor regulations that some have called antiquated, restrictive, or even “arbitrary and capricious.” That last one is the preferred word choice of Joe Fisher, owner of Man Skirt Brewing in Hackettstown.

Fisher started brewing his own beer in his garage in 2008. When he was ready to open his own brewery in 2015, he considered whether New Jersey was the right choice. Unlike most states, New Jersey determines the number of liquor licenses available to each municipality by population: one consumption liquor license for every three thousand people.

This restricted supply has generated a cutthroat battle for liquor licenses if and when they become available. Currently, the website BizBuySell lists a single unattached liquor license for sale in Warren County– a Class 33C liquor license in Mansfield, now available for $369,000.

In denser municipalities, demand can drive the price even higher. In South Brunswick, a liquor license is currently selling for $1.2 million with no land or property attached. This is the reasoning for imposing restrictions on breweries. Since restaurant owners might pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right to sell liquor, some feel their businesses would be threatened by breweries that get the same privilege for a much less expensive brewery license.

Not the most encouraging setting for a brand new brewery. Still, Fisher was undeterred. “It was actually part of my consideration,” Fisher said. “The problem is that I fell in love with Hackettstown.”

Hackettstown’s cozy, communal atmosphere reminded Fisher of the small Staten Island town where he grew up. According to Eric Orlando, Executive Director of the Brewers Guild of New Jersey, this is exactly the setting that stands to benefit the most from independent breweries.

A brewery on its own might not make a small, quiet town into a destination, Orlando said. But a town with a brewery is more likely to increase its foot traffic, providing a potential boost for other local businesses.

This held doubly true during the pandemic. “There truly was an ecosystem,” Orlando said. “Whether it had been the local pizzeria or a local barbecue place that was able to sell food to the customers at a brewery, or even the local band being able to book an extra couple of dates during the month because the breweries hosted live music, that translates into real, meaningful economic impact on communities.”

Orlando also notes the “grain to glass” economic impact of a brewery as it employs staff and supports other industries at every level of sourcing, manufacturing, and distributing. He has observed support from the agricultural sector as well as local business organizations, including the Hackettstown Business Improvement District.

The numbers appear to bear his argument out. The Brewers Association, a national organization providing resources and advocacy for brewers, collects data on the economic impact of breweries in each state. According to its 2022 data, the craft brewing industry has a $1.6 billion impact in NJ. This financial impact is 16th highest in the country, even though NJ ranks 44th in number of breweries per capita.

Fisher has seen the awareness of breweries’ local benefits in Hackettstown. “The alcoholic beverage community is kind of an ecosystem we’ve created,” he said. “We all work together. If one of us succeeds, that doesn’t mean the other fails.”

In Hackettstown, that means Fisher and Matthew Czigler, owner of neighboring Czig Meister Brewing, often frequent and support each other’s establishments. Restaurants and bars in town stock beers from both breweries. According to Fisher, “We support each other. They understand that breweries doing well does not hurt the bars.”

Some elected officials in the area have been vocal in their support for breweries. In July 2022, the Warren County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution condemning the ABC’s brewery restrictions.

Many breweries have also encouraged their patrons to contact their elected officials about the ABC’s regulations and the bill to repeal them, with impressive results. “One gentleman actually said that he has never heard so much from his constituents as he has about this bill,” Fisher said. “And that is a direct result of us petitioning our customers and our customers talking to their elected representatives. It’s powerful. It really makes a difference.”

For all of the support from brewery patrons and the state legislature, however, the bill still remains on the governor’s desk, waiting for his signature in order to become law. If Murphy vetoes the bill, the state legislature technically has enough votes to override his veto– but they are currently on summer recess.

Meanwhile, the ABC has announced that it will not enforce the 2019 restrictions, leaving breweries to host as many events as they’d like for now. But the pause in enforcement is only effective until December 31, 2023, leaving brewers unsure of what the new year will bring.

“As of right now, we’re still in somewhat of a limbo stage,” Orlando said.

Fisher prefers to think of the situation optimistically. “I know I’m doing a lot of complaining right now,” he said. “But I do expect something good, something productive to happen by the end of the year.”

Orlando holds a darker view. “Without a permanent solution by the end of this year, it’s not going to be good for the craft beer industry in the state,” he said. “I think it’s going to show, honestly, a lack of support from the state government for it. And I think some folks are going to have to make a decision about, you know, is New Jersey really a long term home for them.”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.