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Good Beer Hunting

Sep 29, 2018

Today’s guest is a first for GBH - we’re speaking with a state wide, publicly elected political figure - who finds himself at the center of a political movement working to change the laws for Maryland’s small craft brewers. It’s no accident that he ended up in this movement - states all over the union have been reinventing their beer laws to make way for new business models necessary to support small craft brewer, especially when it comes to own-premise taproom models, self-distribution, and franchise rights with wholesalers. Most states have incrementally improved these laws over time, attempting to balance the needs of federally mandated wholesale tier, meant to prevent monopolies, and the beds of consumers and brewers, and more recently, the retail voice has been finding its way into these discussions as well. But a few states, like Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Maryland, have been especially slow to evolve. In these states, the multi-generational wealth of wholesalers, backed by the largest brewing conglomerates in the world, have held an immense amount of influence over politicians. And progress in those states beer laws has been all but static. Peter Franchot, the state’s elected comptroller, is very well known and depending on your view of things, he’s either a uniquely divisive figure in Maryland politics, or he’s uniquely talented at uniting folks around an issue. His role as comptroller is to structure the states financial agenda, which includes tax incentives for industry, and creating fairness is its economic systems, among many other related things. Unlike most states, Maryland doesn’t appoint their comptroller through the governor’s office, but instead elects the comptroller directly. And that means two important things - 1. it enables the voters to compartmentalism their financial interests from the rest of their political agendas - and 2. it protects that office from political influence to a degree, because the comptroller is beholden to the voters, not the governor. For Franchot - that can sometimes put him at odds with his own party’s agenda when they’re in power. And it can sometimes put him in the position of courting the factor of a republican governor when he wants to get something done, and that works against the democratic machine. And he seems to relish in it. And he keeps getting re-elected - with barely any contention. One of the ways he maintains that powerful role is through the campaigns he initiates that tend to be popular, perhaps even populist agendas. He’s gone after common sense school reforms, he fought against sot machines infiltrating his state, and most recently he’s saddled atop the rapid growth in craft beer as a way to rally his voters around something they want to see more of, and against the special interests it threatens. And he’s riding that saddle to electoral victory over and over again, but so far, doesn’t have a victory to show for it on behalf of he brewers themselves. He’s had remarkable success using the uncommon leverage of his office and its popularity to ram through big changes that most states are required to piece-meal over time. He makes a lot of enemies along the way, and more than a few friends, and it remains to be seen wether that’s good for craft beer legislation, or if this might be one battle he takes to the teeth of big beer money and power, and perhaps walks away wounded for the effort. It remains to be seen - and there are small brewers I spoke with on its sides of that strategy. Some are rallying behind the effort while others fear it may hinder their progress at the expense of Franchot having a self-serving campaign that keeps him popular even if he fails. Most would be happy with even a small win. But Franchot, never a meek contender, only seems interested in making his cause bigger in the meantime. In fact, as we sat and talked, I watched his handler wince more than once as Franchot, on the spot, started spontaneously adding new provisions to his bill. It’s a bold strategy. Let’s see if it pays off for him.