VERONA — A group of Republican legislators unveiled a bill Tuesday that would relax restrictions on small brewers and allow wineries to stay open longer, municipalities to issue more liquor licenses and distilleries to operate like brewpubs.
Reps. Dale Kooyenga, Shannon Zimmerman and Gary Tauchen and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf debuted the proposal during a news conference Tuesday at Wisconsin Brewing Co. in Verona. They said the bill is meant to start a conversation about updating Wisconsin’s liquor statutes.
“The way people drink has changed,” Kooyenga said. “This really moves our laws into the 21st century.”
The bill would allow wineries to stay open until 2 a.m. Right now they must close at 9 p.m. They also could produce up to 50,000 gallons of wine and still sell their product through a wholesale winery cooperative. Right now, the limit for participating in a cooperative is 25,000 gallons.
The measure also increases the number of liquor licenses municipalities can issue by 10 percent. The number of licenses a municipality can issue is determined by a formula based on the number of licenses previously issued and its population.
Distilleries could be granted a new permit that allows them to operate “distill pubs” — on-site restaurant operations similar to brewpubs at which beer, wine and liquor could be sold.
Breweries would clearly be allowed to sell their products on-site. Under current state law, a brewer can sell on-site only if the company held a retail liquor license on June 1, 2011, according to a Legislative Reference Bureau summary of the bill.
The bill also would raise the maximum amount of beer a brewpub can produce annually across all its locations from 10,000 barrels to 20,000 barrels and raises the number of locations a brewpub owner can have from six to 12.
The bill represents a major shift from a plan that surfaced in June that called for forcing microbreweries and wineries to sell their products through distributors, eliminating the current option of selling directly to customers. It’s unclear who conceived it, although the first page of a memo detailing the plan carried the acronyms of the Wisconsin Tavern League, the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association and the Wisconsin Wine and Spirit Institute, which represents wine distributors.
Tavern League lobbyist Scott Stenger has denied that organization had anything to do with the memo, calling it a fake. Eric Jensen, executive director of the beer distributors association, said that group wasn’t aware of any plan to force craft brewers to sell through distributors.
Stenger, Jensen and WWSI lobbyist Joel Frank didn’t immediately respond to after-hours email messages Tuesday.
Regardless who was behind it, the proposal hasn’t surfaced as a formal bill and Kooyenga said last month the plan was dead. He said it didn’t make any sense and lawmakers want to foster craft breweries’ growth, not stunt it.
William Glass, president of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild and owner of The Brewing Projekt, an Eau Claire brewery, attended the news conference. He told The Associated Press he was pleased with the new bill.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt us,” he said.
Aides for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn’t immediately return an after-hours email inquiring about the bill’s prospects.
Zimmerman and his wife own a winery in River Falls. He told reporters the industry has “crazy rules.” Asked if he saw any conflict with introducing a bill that would benefit his business, Zimmerman said he’s fighting for wineries all over the state.
“I don’t need that winery to pay my mortgage,” he said.
State Journal staff contributed to this report.