STARLIGHT — Rick Otey makes and sells beer, but recently he’s started to feel as if he deals in more dangerous goods.
“Sometimes I tell people, it’s like we produce weapons-grade plutonium,” he said. “That’s how it feels sometimes.”
Otey is upset by the regulations imposed upon Indiana brewers and distillers by the legislature. Those laws are sometimes reinterpreted without warning by the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, which enforces the rules and, in turn, affects Otey’s business.
Otey, along with several other craft brewers, winemakers and distillers voiced their concerns with the ATC to Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch on Friday when she visited Huber’s Orchard and Winery for a tour and lunch.
The commission declined to comment on this story through an email to the News and Tribune.
Huber’s, whose owners have also ran into problems with the ATC, is one of the main tourist attractions in Southern Indiana, but other local businesses selling craft alcohol are a “big” part of the area’s draw as a destination, too, said Jim Epperson, the executive director of the Clark-Floyd Counties Convention & Tourism Bureau.
From lawful to illegal
Otey, who owns Donum Dei Brewery in New Albany, recently ran into a situation that reignited his issues with the ATC.
For the past two years, Otey and his wife/co-owner, Kim Otey, sold their beer at the Vintage Fire Museum’s annual firefighting festival by applying for and receiving a temporary festival permit.
This year, when the Oteys applied, they were denied and told that the ATC’s interpretation of what constituted a festival had changed. Now, it applies only to trade shows and expositions.
The Oteys were eventually granted permission to serve at the fire museum, but only because Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, intervened to snag them a temporary beer and wine permit. Rick Otey is still not satisfied with the reinterpretation of the law.
To him, it’s a problem because he uses festival events as a rare opportunity to teach people that his two-year-old business exists. But he’s not just upset about the festival permit reinterpretation. When the ATC enforces a law differently — any law — it causes disruption amongst alcohol sellers. That could potentially ruin a business model, Clere argued, although that didn’t happen to Otey. But he isn’t the only local brewer to run into problems with reinterpretation.
Wilbert Best, owner of Best Vineyards and Winery in Elizabeth, was also affected by the new festival interpretation. He uses the permit to sell his wine and spirits at the New Albany Farmer’s Market. This year, he was given permission to bring his spirits to the weekly event, but was later told that next year, his request would be denied.
The Huber family has also struggled with reinterpretations before. Earlier this year, the ATC told the winery to erect barriers between common areas and cashiers where alcohol was sold — even though that hadn’t been a requirement at Huber’s for decades. In May, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a law that exempted small wineries and artisan distilleries from the rule, but Ted Huber, the orchard and winery’s president, is still incensed by the inconsistency of Indiana’s alcohol rules, which he says often changes when ATC leadership does.
“…It happens every few years,” he said. “We get the same thing coming up every time.”
David Cook took over as chair of the ATC in 2015.
Changing the status quo
To Clere, who has authored legislation in the past to deregulate the Hoosier alcohol industry, the issue is about helping out small businesses.
“…We need to treat craft alcohol, small businesses, with the same appreciation and respect that we give to other small businesses,” he said. “Because what they’re doing in most ways is not different than other small businesses. They’re investing in a location and equipment and employees and raw materials, and you know, all the things that go into a small business. The only difference is they happen to be an alcohol business.”
Clere said he wasn’t sure how the problem could be solved legislatively, but he hoped that Friday’s meeting with the lieutenant governor could help bring the issue to her attention.
Crouch did respond to Rick Otey, Best and Ted’s concerns on Friday.
“What government should be doing is providing certainty so you can make sound business decisions,” she said to the men — adding that changing the rules in the way the ATC has been doing does not provide that certainty.
Later, she told the News and Tribune that she would be talking to the ATC’s leader about roadblocks to economic development.