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Beer: Discuss, then grab a cold one

It kicked off with a military color guard escorting Old Glory to the podium while the audience stood stiffly at attention for the Star-Spangled Banner. Suggested attire was coat and tie. The beverage of choice was coffee.

Yes, the annual National Beer Wholesalers Association/Brewers Legislative Conference, which took place Sunday through Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, was a slightly more sober affair than the Craft Brewers Conference described here two weeks ago.

Not that the event didn’t have its lighter moments. “Times are tough. ... The beer industry is so desperate that they had to ask a Mormon who doesn’t drink a lick of alcohol to address the distributors,” quipped guest speaker Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

The 1,000 or so attendees spent the afternoons reminding Congress about the vital role beer plays in the national economy: 138,000 high-paying jobs, nearly $10 billion in annual wages and $198 billion in economic activity each year, according to NBWA statistics.

In the evenings, they partied.

At a welcoming reception organized by the Brewers Association, the trade group for small brewers, I spotted Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colo. I asked her the Question: When will the oft-requested Fat Tire Amber Ale, Ranger IPA and other New Belgium beers finally be available in the Washington area?

“I would think next year or the year after that,” she said, who’s already established an East Coast beachhead in the Carolinas and Georgia. “We went into six new markets last year and that killed us,” she said.

The discovery of the day was Exit 16, a special release from the Flying Fish Brewing Co. in Cherry Hill, N.J. This double IPA is brewed with 10 percent rice in the grist, which lightens the brew and gives it an extra-crispness. The primary hop is Citra, the same aromatic variety that gives Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA its almost liqueurish fruit-cocktail taste. Brewery president Gene Muller said he named the beer after the exit to Hackensack and the Meadowlands, where Native Americans raised plots of wild rice in pre-Colonial days. Look for it at select outlets in Maryland and the District of Columbia, he added.

This year’s conference was a testimony of the ability of beer to smooth over differences of opinion.

The wholesalers and some of the brewers were at loggerheads (lagerheads?) over H.R. 5034, the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act, at the top of the NBWA’s legislative agenda. (Full text available here.)

The CARE Act, in essence, would have Congress recognize the primacy of states in regulating alcohol, and would make it more difficult (some would say nigh impossible) to challenge state alcohol laws in court.

The NBWA insists the bill is meant to protect the status quo, which requires most alcohol to pass through a middleman, the distributor, en route from the manufacture to the retailer. This three-tier system, as mandated by state law, has done an exemplary job in maintaining product safety, ensuring the orderly collection of taxes, and affording consumers plenty of choice, the NBWA asserts.

The Beer Institute, which represents the large national brewers, says the bill goes too far. The Brewers Association, officially, has taken no stance on H.R. 5034.

It’s a complicated and sometimes rancorous debate, and at the legislative briefing, the factions ignored H.R. 5034 in favor of something they can all agree on: tax relief. Two bills before Congress would halve the federal excise tax on beer: H.R. 836, which would grant tax relief to all brewers, and H.R. 4278, which would deliver a break to small brewers (defined as those producing fewer than 6 million barrels a year). Attendees were urged to support both.

On stage, Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian and Acting Beer Institute president Art DeCelle joined NBWA president Craig Purser for a toast to former Beer Institute president Jeff Becker, who passed away in January. He had cancer. They praised Becker for exemplifying the adage, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

At the conference’s last major event, a reception in the Library of Congress’s Madison Building, I tried Select 55, Anheuser-Busch’s new super-low-calorie brew. It’s the closest thing to water I’ve ever tasted that is not actually water. For a heftier beer, I had to elbow my way through a crowd of Hill staffers five or six deep to a tub of microbrews.

This is how one courts the future movers and shakers of America: with cold beer. "Whenever America's beer distributors decide to throw a party, you know it's bound to be a great time,” said one Democratic staffer who did not wish to be identified further; “Even as a homebrewer, I appreciate their hospitality,” he added as he carried off a bottle of Magic Hat 9.

-- Greg Kitsock

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By The Food Section  |  April 23, 2010; 4:10 PM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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Comments

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Posted by: kellytkettle | April 24, 2010 10:55 PM | Report abuse

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