Tucked into Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) much-discussed budget was a little-noticed provision to overhaul the state’s regulation of the beer industry. In a state long associated with beer, the provision will make it much more difficult for the Wisconsin’s burgeoning craft breweries to operate and expand their business by barring them from selling directly to restaurants and liquor stores, and preventing them from selling their own product onsite.
The new provision treats craft brewers — the 60 of whom make up just 5 percent of the beer market in Wisconsin — like corporate mega-brewers, forcing them to use a wholesale distributor to market their product. Under the provision, it would be illegal, for instance, for a small brewer located near a restaurant to walk next door to deliver a case of beer. They’ll have to hire a middle man to do it instead.
But more noteworthy than the provision itself is how it was enacted. The provision was quietly slipped in the massive budget legislation without any consultation from independent craft brewers, who are justifiably outraged by it. One group that clearly did have input, however, is one of the world’s largest beer makers — MillerCoors:
Chicago-based MillerCoors, which operates a brewery and eastern division headquarters in Milwaukee, supports the proposal because it shares concerns with wholesale distributors about the possibility of Anheuser-Busch buying wholesalers throughout the country, said company spokesman James Wright.
Joining MillerCoors in support of the provision are industry associations that have an interest in preserving the current business of beer distributors, including the industry’s lobby, the Wisconsin Beer Distribution Association. But craft brewers see the provision as “a power grab” by MillerCoors that is targeted at them. OpenMarket.org reports:
Craft brewers say that MillerCoors is pulling a fast-one on the states legislature by selling this as a bill that would protect small beer from the brewing behemoth [Anheuser-Busch] InBev’s plan to monopolize the Wisconsin wholesale market. Craft brewers say that this is clearly not InBev’s intent, as they have passed up opportunities to purchase wholesalers in the state no less than 16 times since 2008. They say the real competition that MillerCoors is trying to protect itself against is the growing craft beer market. The restrictions the measure places on any wholesaler wishing to start-up in Wisconsin seem to support the craft brewers’ claims.
The provision is a classic bit of rent-seeking from MillerCoors, who appear to be seeking to preserve their current market share with the power of the state government.
But why would Walker — who calls small businesses the “backbone of our economy” and has postured himself as their champion — side with a foreign-owned mega-corporation over locally owned small brewers? It may have to do with the fact that MillerCoors, which is joint venture with foreign-owned SABMiller, donated $22,675 to his campaign.
— With research assistance from ThinkProgress intern Jen Kalaidis.