Written by Erik Schelzig for The Associated Press and Mercurynews.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn.—A bill to allow strong beer makers to sell their product at Tennessee breweries was given final approval by the House on Saturday and sent to the governor for his signature.
The House voted 69-15 to pass the bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Curry Todd of Collierville. It passed the Senate 28-3 a day earlier.
The measure is aimed at enticing Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. to establish a $200 million plant in East Tennessee.
Alcoa is on the short list of locations being considered by the Chico, Calif.-based company, but the brewer has said that it won’t remain in the running without changes in state law. The company wants the state to allow on-site sales of high-alcohol beer and the sampling of products at a taproom and restaurant that would be built alongside the brewery.
“This is a good bill, it’s an economic development bill,” Todd said.
The measure would establish legal guidelines on beer with an alcohol content of 5 percent to 20 percent. Tennessee law currently makes no distinction between high-alcohol beer and liquors or wines.
Todd said that the legislation could also benefit other plants in Tennessee such as the former Coors plant in Memphis that has been bought by La Crosse, Wis.-based City Brewing Co. and the Yazoo Brewing Co. in Nashville.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam plans to sign the measure into law, spokesman David Smith said.
Rep. Kent Williams, a Elizabethton independent, voted for the bill, but raised concerns about how the measure would relate to a separate perennial proposal to allow wine sales in supermarkets.
“We have legislation here every year that allows more availability to minors in grocery stores and convenience stores,” Williams said. “And if we pass that legislation I think it would allow this product also.”
Todd has been a vocal opponent of allowing wine sales in supermarkets and helped kill this year’s version in committee in April. He said he doesn’t want to make strong beer more easily available.
“You would never see this sponsor bring any kind of legislation to sell high-content beer anywhere else than in the brewery or in the liquor store where it belongs,” he said.
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville said the measure approved Saturday could open up the possibility of lawmakers passing a bill to allow wine to be sold in supermarkets while continuing to restrict retail sales of strong beer to liquor stores.
“I’m only in favor of wine in grocery stores,” Ramsey said. “That’s not going to include heavy beer.”
The bill would also allow brewers of high-alcohol beer to obtain a restaurant license and serve liquor, and to sell up to five gallons to brewery visitors.
Another element of the bill would change a law that distilleries can only sell whiskey in commemorative bottles, thereby allowing them to offer visitors the same bottles sold in stores.