MILWAUKEE — A fight brewing over beer in Wisconsin pits the growing market of craft brewers against a large, well-known brewer.
A group of craft brewers say a proposal being supported by MillerCoors, the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association, Tavern League of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Grocers Association and others would limit smaller brewers’ ability to expand and could limit them from getting beer to consumers in the future.
“This is all about money and restricting competition. This isn’t idle child’s play,” said Jeff Hamilton, president of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild and Sprecher Brewing Co. in Milwaukee.
Wisconsin has three tiers, like many other states, for alcohol distribution: a brewer, a wholesaler that distributes the beer and a retailer that sells it. The system was put in place at the end of Prohibition and used by brewers that made Milwaukee famous: Miller, Blatz, Schlitz and Pabst. (They’ve since moved all or most of their facilities out of the state.)
The proposal was inserted into the proposed state budget by the Legislature’s budget committee. It would combine the brewer’s permit and wholesale and retail licenses given out by municipalities into a single permit under state control. It would effectively ban brewers from purchasing wholesale distributors — something craft brewers say they might need in the future to avoid getting squeezed out of the market by large corporate brewers.
The proposed changes would also keep brewers from selling other brands and keep them from starting a series of breweries that sell the beer with its name.
Tim Roby, spokesman for the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association, said the proposal keeps the historical three-tier system intact and keeps the likes of Anheuser Busch from buying a wholesale distributor and only selling its own beer to retailers. The St. Louis-based company won a court challenge last year over an Illinois law that barred out of state brewers from owning beer wholesalers, while exempting local craft brewers.