ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Change is hard. It’s hard in part because those who resist it can point to what would be lost, which usually can be seen, while proponents can only describe what might be gained, which often is unseen.
So here’s to an example of change whose benefits can be seen, and even sipped.
The craft-brewing scene in this funky town in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a tasty testament to what’s possible when lawmakers work to open up markets for innovative entrepreneurs, not to stifle them to protect industry incumbents. If you want to see what Georgia could have if it didn’t impose some of the nation’s strictest regulations on its brewers, visit Asheville.
North Carolina, like Georgia and other Southern states, once made it nearly impossible for brewers to set up shop, much less grow. Just a decade ago, the Tar Heel State had only a couple of dozen craft brewers. Then its lawmakers loosened some key regulations, including a strict limit on the percentage of alcohol by volume allowed; the state had already legalized on-site sales and self-distribution, two key activities still banned in Georgia.
Today, North Carolina boasts nearly 200 breweries. The Asheville Brewers Alliance alone counts 44 among its members. The entire state of Georgia has just 45, which ranks 48th in the nation on a per capita basis according to the national Brewers Association. North Carolina, with almost the same population as Georgia, comes in 19th.
“The ability to sell on-site, both on the premises and for off-premises consumption, the ability to self-distribute, those things are absolutely essential to incubating a successful craft-brewing industry,” says Margo Knight Metzger, head of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild.
“We can have those tiny upstart breweries who can start in a small town and grow organically, because they don’t have to sell so much in distribution. When they can sell on-site, they can start small.”
Wander around Asheville, as I did on a recent weekend, and you see what that looks like. On my way to one brewery recommended by a friend, I passed at least three others. Later I circled back to one of them, Green Man Brewery, where a few dozen beer drinkers watched a U.S. men’s soccer match in the brewery’s original tasting room while other visitors enjoyed tours and tastings in an impressive new facility next door. And I was only scratching the surface.
It’s a scene one could imagine in Athens, Savannah or various parts of metro Atlanta. But you don’t see it because Georgia law limits breweries to offering a small number of free tastings or take-home samples to visitors who pay for a tour, a cattywampus arrangement legislators created at the behest of wholesalers and retailers who barked about a proposal that went further.
Even if you aren’t into beer, or are content with Bud Light, or are one of those wholesalers or retailers worried about shaking up the system, there are other signs of what could be.
For example: Despite allowing brewers to distribute up to 25,000 barrels a year of their own product, rather than selling all of it through wholesalers, North Carolina has 25 percent more wholesale jobs than similarly sized Georgia, according to the Beer Institute. The states have virtually the same number of retail jobs. And the Brewers Association reports annual state and local tax revenues from brewers in North Carolina surpass those in Georgia by almost $1 billion.
You can see it. You can taste it. Whatever you do, you better believe it.