If relief from burdensome regulations could be measured in pint glasses, this year’s relief for New Hampshire’s beer industry wouldn’t fill a 2 oz flight glass.
New Hampshire alcohol laws are a twisted knot of post-Prohibition restrictions pocked with favoritism and special protections for incumbent players. Reforms come slowly and gradually. This year, Granite State brewers got just a shot of relief.
Craft breweries that survive the start-up process face enormous obstacles to success. Think of the shelf space in the beer aisle at your local grocery or convenience store. It’s mostly national brands and larger regional breweries.
To get on a retailer’s shelf requires negotiating that space with the retailer (who has to clear space already occupied by an existing brand), lining up distribution to the retailer, ensuring a steady supply of ingredients and packaging (including cans and bottles), and keeping production steady and consistent.
Many small-scale manufacturers don’t *have to* navigate such hazards because they have the option of opening their own retail outlets. If you make T-shirts or cupcakes, you can open your own branded stores and sell directly to the public.
But not if you make beer.
Brewers classified as “beverage manufacturers” (as opposed to brew pubs or nano breweries) have long been restricted to selling their beer on-site or at a licensed retailer. The state prohibited them from opening their own retail store in a location separate from their brewery.
Legislators not long ago created a separate legal entity called a “beverage manufacturer retail outlet,” but the law described such outlets as places where beverage manufacturing took place. So brewers were technically not allowed to open their own stores unless they also brewed there.
This year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Chris Sununu signed House Bill 1039, which fixed that mistake and finally let beer manufacturers open a stand-alone retail outlet not connected to the brewing operation.
“This beverage manufacturer retail outlet allows a brewery such as ourselves to open a separate location that’s basically just a tasting room that doesn’t have to have a manufacturing facility,” Kirsten Neves of Tuckerman Brewery said in an interview.
There’s a catch, though. The law allows beer manufacturers to open a single retail outlet.
If you make beer in the North Country, you’re limited to opening one and only one branded retail outlet below the notches. If you want to create a series of branded outlets to provide customers a consistent retail and beer-tasting experience in Manchester, Nashua, Salem, Londonderry, Keene and Portsmouth, well, tough. You have to pick one.
One is a big improvement over zero. But the public safety justification for limiting brewers to a single self-operated retail outlet is a mystery considering that the state is covered in licensed retailers. What possible public safety danger is created by a brewer operating a retail outlet instead of delivering product to a third-party retailer like a grocer or convenience store?
Though state beer regulations impose pretty severe burdens on brewers, the only other legislative change this year was a bill by Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Derry, to allow dogs on brewpub patios.
Some towns had been allowing people to bring their dogs when seated outdoors at a brewpub, but the state Department of Health and Human Services cracked down on the practice, saying it wasn’t allowed by statute.
So legislators actually had to pass a law to allow towns to allow dogs in outdoor seating areas. Birdsell’s Senate Bill 17 originally covered only brew pubs but was amended to cover all restaurants.
To illustrate just how long it can take to make a small and reasonable change such as letting dogs sit on restaurant patios, the bill passed the Senate in February of 2021, but took almost another year before passing the House. Gov. Chris Sununu signed it into law this past February.