July 2, 2019
By Jennifer Tiedemann
Ah, summer: a time when many Americans’ fancy turns to kicking back with a cold beer on a hot day. But as the weather’s turned warm in New England, some Massachusetts legislators have been trying to make this favorite summer activity a little more difficult for Bostonians.
Pop-up beer gardens have been growing in popularity in Boston, with several local breweries setting up seasonal shop throughout the city. Breweries must obtain one-day liquor licenses in order to operate a pop-up location. As Boston.com explains, “State law says that no ‘person’ can be granted more than 30 such licenses a year. But breweries and others can skirt that provision by simply having different employees apply for the permits, so that their beer gardens can be open regularly through the several warm-weather months.”
But Senate Bill 158, introduced earlier this year, would limit breweries to just 14 one-day licenses per calendar year and tighten the bill language to eliminate the ability to use multiple individuals to apply for the licenses. Capping the issuance of licenses in such a way would effectively put an end to the pop-up or seasonal beer garden option that many local breweries rely on—and many Bostonians have come to love. For example, the popular Trillium Brewing Company’s downtown Boston beer garden is operating five days a week throughout the summer of 2019. Should Senate Bill 158 become law, that schedule would be upended. Breweries like Trillium would have to decide if having a beer garden is even worth it, and in many cases, the answer will likely be no. (Indeed, if the bill is passed as written, Trillium’s director of marketing has said that their beer garden would be “forced to close.”)
So what’s behind the legislation? In short, the local restaurant industry. In a statement issued about the beer garden situation, Massachusetts State Senator and bill co-sponsor Nick Collins explained that while the cost of beer garden licenses is relatively low—only $75 to $150 per day—the cost of a full liquor license for a restaurant ranges between $250,000 and $500,000. Collins wrote, “I have…heard from restaurants that rightfully point out that they incur costs much higher than $75 a day to maintain their licensure, and believe the playing field is tilted.”
But this assumes that restaurants and beer gardens are actually on the same playing field, filling the same niche. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA) insists they are: MRA President Bob Luz has said that “several members of the industry, which isn’t known for its high profit margins, have seen 25 percent dives in revenue due to the opening of nearby beer gardens.” (Important to note: Luz actually drafted the anti-beer garden legislation now being considered.) But brewery owners like Rob Burns disagree: Burns, the president and co-founder of local brewery Night Shift, says of the legislation, “We’re trying to solve a problem of why people aren’t going to restaurants by killing beer gardens, which seems kind of crazy to me.”
Well, this definitely isn’t the first time we’ve heard about a disagreement like this. As discussed on this blog a few months back, a special ruling issued in New Jersey last year, restricted the number of events that Garden State breweries could hold on premises. The state’s restaurant industry supported the special ruling, pointing to the difference in cost between limited brewery licenses and full restaurant liquor licenses.
In the same way that punishing New Jersey’s breweries because full liquor licenses for restaurants are very expensive is unfair, Massachusetts’ burgeoning beer gardens shouldn’t suffer because of high liquor license costs. Brewery owners, including Night Shift’s Burns, have expressed openness to some sort of license reform, such as the issuance of seasonal licenses for beer gardens rather than one-day licenses. But any reform should fairly and equitably reduce regulatory burdens, rather than throw new ones up at the behest of one special interest.
Jennifer Tiedemann is Deputy Director of Communications at the Goldwater Institute.