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Breweries fear for future, as state interprets law

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Local craft breweries say they are in limbo as the state looks into a law designed to allow tap rooms.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed Senate Bill 424 into law in May, seemingly allowing brewers to serve their high-point beer to patrons by the glass.

Currently, breweries may serve low-point beer in tap rooms, but only provide samples of strong beers to patrons.

But the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission (ABLE) is now asking for the attorney general's guidance interpreting the law. Director Keith Burt said he wants to make sure the intent and language of the law line up.

"It doesn't spell out you can have on-premise consumption," he told reporters after ABLE's monthly meeting. "We have to abide by the law. So we're asking for the Attorney General to give his guidance. I hope it goes [the brewers'] way.

Craft brewers learned about ABLE's concerns Thursday afternoon, just over a week before the new law was scheduled to take effect. Many used public comment at a Friday morning meeting to express their concerns, citing fears that restricted tap rooms would derail their business plans or investments.

"The tap room is a huge part of our business model, especially at the start for us," said Joel Irby, who moved back to Oklahoma to start Stonecloud Brewing Company. "Finding out last night was just pretty devastating especially because we've already committed to a lot of the investment in the business."

A tap room is essential to any brewery's business model, Irby said, allowing for greater camaraderie and increased profits for the brewer.

Even at large, already-successful breweries, a "modern" tap room raises the ceiling.

"The success we're having in out-of-state markets is directly tied to a functional tap room," said Sean Mossman of Coop Ale Works, the state's largest craft brewery. "The point is that we want people to come to Oklahoma City to have a great experience but to also create commerce for Oklahomans back in their home states when they go back by trying one of the strong-point beers here."

Like many area breweries, Coop had a party planned to ring in the new law, pouring plenty of pints of high-point beer.

Now, those plans are in limbo. The ABLE Commission does not know how long it will take to reach a conclusion, though the director wants to expedite the process.

"We need to hurry," said Keith Burt. "I understand people have serious investments and I want to get a resolution."

State Rep. Cory Williams (D-Stillwater), who wrote the bill, said upholding the intent of the law in a timely fashion is "the difference between bankruptcy and success."

If the Attorney General and the ABLE Commission were to "narrowly interpret" the law, brewers say they would return to the legislature and attempt to craft a new bill next session.