Booze is on the minds of Tennessee General Assembly members this year, particularly with a couple of bills that will tell Tennesseans what they can drink and where they can get it.
One much-discussed bill would make way for retailers such as grocery stores and convenience stores to sell wine. Another bill would allow Tennessee beer brewers to raise the alcohol percentage in the beers they make without requiring special permits.
The wine bill, which would allow individual counties to bring the issue of wine being sold in grocery stores to a ballot, quickly passed through the Tennessee State Senate last week. It was a shocking development to many who have watched the proposed law rise and fail in the legislature for the past seven years.
A review of the House version of the bill will be heard in committees this week. Passage by the full House would send the bill to Governor Bill Haslam's desk.
If the bill is signed, efforts could begin to get referendums on the November ballots of the 49 eligible counties. Cities and counties must already have liquor-by-the-drink or liquor-by-the-package laws approved to be able to bring the wine referendum to the ballot box. If voters approve the referendums, wine could be sold in grocery and convenience stores in their communities beginning July 1, 2016.
Joe Bell, spokesman for Kroger's Delta Division, said this was the first year there were any real negotiations between liquor store owners and other retailers on this issue. The main reason it got traction this year was because of the widespread outcry from lawmakers when the bill was killed early in last year's session. It was shepherded through the process by House and Senate leaders this year.
The Senate bill does not allow grocery or convenience stores to sell high-gravity beers, which tend to have higher alcohol contents. Changing the rule would open new markets for craft brewers and is one plank in the 2014 platform of the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild.
The Guild is also working on changes to state laws that would raise the alcohol limit in Tennessee beer from the current five percent threshold to 12 percent. All of Tennessee's bordering states have higher or no limits on the alcohol content in beers, according to the "Fix the Beer Cap Tennessee" campaign.
Tennessee brewers can make high-gravity beers now, but the brewer must get several licenses and permits to do so. Wiseacre Brewing Company got a distiller's license in January and has since offered a barleywine with a 9.5 percent alcohol content. But getting and paying for the licenses to do it can be difficult and expensive, according to the campaign. The bill making its way through the General Assembly would do away with those expensive licenses.
The current laws put the state at a disadvantage as it limits the styles of beers brewers can offer consumers and could prevent some breweries from opening in Tennessee, both of which could hamper tax revenues, according to the campaign website.
"The solution is simple," said Linus Hall, owner of Nashville's Yazoo Brewing Co. "Tennessee needs to reform its definition of beer to make it more competitive with neighboring states, to give its local brewers a new market, and to greatly expand the selection of beers that consumers can enjoy."