Bars Lash Out Vs. Craft Beers

A handful of South and Central Jersey tavern owners protest possible changes in brewery rules.

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons: Quinn Dombrowski.

A small number of South and Central Jersey bar owners have unleashed a boycott against New Jersey-brewed craft beer, citing pending state legislation that they say would allow the brewers to compete more effectively with their bars.

To date, only a handful of taverns have joined the boycott. They say the proposed rules would devalue their pricey liquor licenses. Meanwhile, at least one association for craft-beer drinkers is calling on members to amp up their patronage of bars that carry Jersey brews.

The bipartisan bill (A4602, S3024) aims to let small, independent breweries sell pints of their beer in their tasting rooms without requiring patrons to tour the facility. The breweries also would be allowed to sell or give away packaged snacks, like chips.

The bill is intended to clarify language and relax two provisions in the 2013 law that opened the market to dozens of new breweries by letting them sell pints for on-premises consumption. The 2013 law specifies that breweries cannot “operate a restaurant” and that visitors have to tour the brewery before buying. The new bill has passed out of committee in the state Assembly; the Senate has not taken action.

Though many of the state’s 7,200 on-premises liquor licensees gripe about the new bill, NJM could confirm only a handful that have stopped carrying New Jersey beer: the Ott’s restaurant locations in Medford, Berlin and Washington Township, plus Braddock’s Tavern in Medford (all owned by Bob Wagner, a New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association board member and the driving force behind the boycott); Dadz Bar & Grill in Lumberton; and the Neighborhood Pub & Grill at Ellery’s in Middlesex.

In supporting the boycott, John Ellery, owner of the Neighborhood Pub, cites the relative cost of liquor licenses. Bars and restaurants sometimes spend more than $1 million to buy their liquor licenses, he says, while craft breweries only pay the state between $1,250 and $7,500 per year per license.

“If they want to be a bar they should buy a liquor license,” says Ellery. “They’re not only affecting my profit they’re taking money out of my staff’s pockets.”

Local brewers and advocates don’t buy that argument.

“Eliminating the burdensome mandatory tours at breweries does not make breweries ‘bar-like,’” emails Jason Carty, executive director of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild. “Brewery owners simply want parity with surrounding states [whose laws are looser].”

Augie Carton, whose Carton Brewing Co. brand was kicked off the draught lines at the Village Pub, calculates that if all of New Jersey’s more than six dozen craft breweries sold all their beer into the state at once, there’d only be enough for a two-day party. He adds that a bar/restaurant’s liquor license allows owners to sell beer, wine, spirits and food while a limited brewery license allows brewers to sell one product – their own.

“Selling that amount of beer isn’t actually competition and seeing it as competition is wrong for the community,” he says.

The New Jersey Craft Beer membership discount program has cut ties with the boycotting bars and is asking the state’s craft beer fans to order New Jersey brews at their favorite watering holes and breweries from September 14-17.

Scott Wells, sales director at Ridgefield Park’s Bolero Snort Brewery, estimates that New Jersey craft brewers produce less than 2 percent of the beer sold in the state. Neither he nor Carton expect to lose much volume from the boycott. Among the participating venues, only Cinder Bar has established itself as a craft-beer stronghold, and it’s barely over a year old.

Bob Platzer, who founded the Haddonfield-based P.J.W. Restaurant Group that owns and operates 18 beer-centric bars in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, agrees tasting rooms shouldn’t behave as bars. Despite that, he plans to keep featuring local beers “where it makes sense.”

“Our customers are actively seeking out locally brewed options,” he says by e-mail. “Many of our customers and neighbors are connected to a microbrewery in some way. We are proud to support these local businesses.”

As the number of U.S. breweries pushes toward 6,000, bars (and sometimes wholesalers) across the country are starting to lobby for stricter tasting-room legislation in their own states. So far, New Jersey bar owners seem to be taking the most drastic action.

UPDATE: A previous version of this story reported that the Village Pub locations in Swedesboro and Washington Township and Cinder Bar in Clarksboro were among the restaurants taking part in the boycott of Jersey craft beers. However, while the owners believe breweries should not be allowed to operate as bars, they say they have not stopped selling local craft beer.

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