State law hurts Wisconsin craft brewery industry


On a tourism website for Asheville, N.C., there are many ways to plan a “Beercation Getaway.”

From a three-hour Brews Cruise bus tour through the city to a stop at The Hop Ice Cream Café, the mid-sized southern town is attempting to secure its place as Beer City USA.


While Wisconsin ranks 13th in the nation with 121 craft breweries and 2.3 breweries per 100,000 drinking-age adults, North Carolina is hot on our heels. The state has 101 craft breweries and 1.4 breweries per 100,000 drinking-age adults, according to the Brewers Association, a national brewer trade association.

Some believe the reason is North Carolina’s commitment to the industry.

“Asheville went after the craft brew industry and now this sleepy tourist town is producing millions of gallons of beer,” said Jim McCabe, owner of the Milwaukee Ale House in the Third Ward and Milwaukee Brewing Co. in Walker’s Point.

“Small towns across the country are creating breweries that are the size of Lakefront Brewery and they are able to produce and export. But there are some real hurdles to brewing beer in Wisconsin.”

The major hurdle McCabe is referring to is a provision in the 2011 state budget that made Wisconsin one of 32 states to prohibit anyone who has a liquor license, or operates a retail liquor business, from obtaining a permit for a brewery.

Because of the law, McCabe had to sell his second Milwaukee Ale House location in Grafton. The Third Ward location was exempt because McCabe also brews beer on the premises.

McCabe pointed to a number of breweries across the country that have been successful, in part, because of their ability to also operate a restaurant.

Elysian Brewing Co. in Seattle operates four restaurants in the city. Since opening in 1996, Elysian has brewed more than 350 craft beers.

“That model is not possible in Wisconsin and it’s a great way to get your brand out and entrenched in an area,” McCabe said.

When Justin Aprahamian, chef and owner of Sanford Restaurant, and business partner John Lavelle, wanted to open Like Minds Brewery in mid-2015, they looked at dozens of sites in Milwaukee but were unable to close the deal because of the current law.

Aprahamian and Lavelle ended up opening Like Minds in Chicago.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga , R-Brookfield, said after hearing about Like Minds, he has been working with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue to try to change the policy. He believes this provision will be an issue that will be addressed in the next legislative session.

“The bottom line is there are a lot of crazy laws around this industry that are a remnant of prohibition,” Kooyenga said. “There are ways we could peel some of it back, in a reasonable way, to accommodate entrepreneurship without blowing up the whole system.”

McCabe believes if people knew how complicated the law was, they would encourage change.

“What’s great about Wisconsin is there is so much history here with the big brewers, people do care about us having a beer culture,” he said. “We are a tourism state – craft beer could be a great part of destination tourism.”

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