Small brewers say they’re victims in Miller-Bud war

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A Wausau craft beer brewer is up in arms about a state budget provision he said could make it difficult to expand and will deter others from opening breweries.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee last week approved a measure aimed at keeping Anheuser-Busch Inc. from aggressively moving into Wisconsin by preventing brewers from owning wholesale distributors.

Tim Roby, spokesman for the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association, said the move would prevent Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser products, from buying up distributors across Wisconsin to drastically increase its presence in a market dominated now by MillerCoors.

“We believe everything that small craft brewers can do today, they’ll be able to do once the bill is signed and passed into law,” he said.

Local brewers, including Don Zamzow of Bull Falls Brewery, insist that a number of the proposed changes could stifle a now-booming craft beer industry.

“On the surface it all looks well and good as a turf war between those two big guys,” Zamzow said. “But it doesn’t take long to get to craft beers.”

The measure allows brewers that make 300,000 barrels of beer to continue to distribute their own beer, as Bull Falls does, but would prohibit a small brewery from having two retail licenses. A brewer could keep one of its retail licenses if it had the license before Jan. 1, 2011.

Zamzow said that without its retail license, Bull Falls would have struggled to get started. The brewery still makes 80 percent of its money in its own bar on Wausau’s east side, and at one time almost all of its sales came from the taps before it found places that would stock Bull Falls beers.

“I can guarantee you there won’t be a (new) startup,” he said.

Zamzow said legislators need only to add a blanket exemption to the bill that excludes small beer makers from the changes. Several legislators who sit on the Joint Finance Committee did not return phone messages last week to comment.

Kevin Eichelberger, brewmaster at Red Eye Brewing Co. in Wausau, said his restaurant-brewery might not see immediate changes, because he operates under a different type of license. But stifling wholesale distribution ultimately could hurt the business if Red Eye decides to distribute more of its beer in the future.

“I don’t want to be told somewhere down the road that ‘Hey, you’re not going to be able to do this or that,'” he said.