TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Members of the New Jersey's craft brewers guild — a group small enough to fit in one restaurant booth a few years ago and now numbering around 70 — worry state law is murky on whether they can sell their suds at farmers markets or if local food trucks can serve patrons at microbreweries.
But they're are hoping that a package of bills being pushed by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. as well as legislative Democrats will clear up any confusion.
The legislation comes as the craft beer industry in New Jersey expands after lawmakers sought to loosen the state's tight alcoholic beverage controls three years ago.
The growth in New Jersey reflects what's going on nationally. Last year, new breweries grew by roughly 19 percent bringing the total number to 3,464, according to Brewers Association, the Colorado-based trade group representing craft brewers.
New Jersey's craft breweries, which fall into production facilities like microbreweries and brewpubs that sell restaurant fare, have gone from 18 to 36 since 2012, with an additional 16 expected to open soon, according to lawmakers and the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, a trade group representing craft brewers.
The growth comes after the 2012 law lowered barriers for craft brewers on the sale of six packs, which had been capped at two, and on samples, limited to four four-ounce units, said Eric Orlando, Vice President of Kaufman Zita Group, which handles lobbying for the craft brewers guild. Now craft brewers can sell up to a half-keg.
That change helped Cape May Brewing Company grow from one employee in 2011 to 37 today by making tasting rooms more lucrative, says co-founder and guild president Ryan Krill. The industry is growing in part because beer drinkers increasingly engage in brewery tourism, he said.
"People just want to know where their beer is coming from," Krill said.
The pending bills have support from Democrats and Republicans but have so far not advanced. One measure would let craft breweries sell beer at farmers markets; another measure would allow local fare— like from food trucks — to be sold at microbreweries. A third would authorize brewpubs to sell up to 1,000 barrels of beer to licensed retailers in New Jersey and other states. One barrel is equivalent to 31 gallons or two kegs.
Kean said the bills will let microbrews and brewpubs "double-up" on the helpful changes in the 2012 law.
Not everyone sees the bills that way. Republican Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli voted no on the 2012 bill and said while he supports the brewers' innovations he worries that allowing them to host food trucks could devalue restaurateurs' costly liquor licenses, some of which have sold for up to $1 million, he said.
Even if Kean's proposals advance, more could be done to loosen what Krill said are the state's Prohibition-era laws. Specifically, craft brewers may next push for expanding the state regulators' resources to process more applications, as well as looking at giving craft brewers tax credits to buy equipment like other states, including Pennsylvania, offer, Orlando said.
New Jersey has some ground to make up compared to neighboring states. Pennsylvania led the country in output with 4.1 million barrels in 2014, according to a national trade group called the Brewers Association, while New York ranked eighth with roughly 948,000 barrels. New Jersey by comparison ranked 34th and produced about 67,000 barrels.
Still brewers say they're optimistic.
"New Jersey was really behind the times," Krill said. "This was the first little crack of sunrise."