When I started in the alcohol industry in 2012, craft beverage law was only beginning to carve out a niche. Over the past decade, while large alcohol companies continued to consolidate, craft beverage producers experienced something of a renaissance. Fast forward to 2021, and the number of craft spirits producers in the United States has more than doubled, with approximately 2,000 distilleries across the country. With this growth comes the need for lawyers to practice craft beverage law.
Alcohol law has long been considered an arena that is difficult to breach—a club of mostly longtime state regulators, boutique firm specialists, and in-house counsel for large conglomerates. The lack of craft beverage lawyers is problematic when most newcomers to the industry are small “mom and pop” operations that lack the resources to hire full-time legal counsel but still require their assistance. To make up for the lack of an in-house advocate, craft producers join guilds to capitalize on the strength in their growing numbers.
Tradespeople have long organized themselves into guilds for mutual aid or to pursue a common goal. National, state, and local guilds have formed in recent years to address regulatory issues unique to small operations. Because they focus on advocacy and policy reform, guilds can effectively promote their members’ interests before state legislatures. In recent years, an increasing number of attorneys have entered the craft beverage arena through involvement with craft beverage guilds and have been instrumental in achieving reforms.
I became involved in the Maryland Distillers Guild and gained considerable experience in legislative advocacy and policymaking through the organization. As a member of the guild’s government affairs committee, I trained craft distillers in issue advocacy and developing policy reform, drafting legislation, and providing legislative testimony. Some of my other duties included consulting and training regulators and lawmakers and accompanying distillers to Capitol Hill to advocate for reforms.
Becoming involved in a craft beverage guild is the best way to find small producers in need of advocacy. Alcohol laws are amended every year in many states, so each legislative session provides a new opportunity for guilds to get involved in policymaking at the ground level. Large producers send advocates to statehouses to lobby for their interests, but craft producers’ interests can be overlooked if they do not show up in equal force. As craft producers seek to open more routes to market through direct shipping and e-commerce, they will need to engage in issue advocacy. Banding together in a guild gives craft producers a unified voice, but they still need lawyers’ professional advocacy to ensure that their collective voice makes a difference.
Getting involved with a guild doesn’t necessarily require prior experience in alcohol law. Passion and knowledge of constitutional and regulatory law will be enough to get you started. You can find guilds in your area by searching the websites of national trade organizations like the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) or the Brewers Association. ACSA is a great resource, and many statecraft beverage guilds have websites with information on how to get involved. Check if guilds in your state have affiliate memberships for lawyers and law firms. Aside from legislative advocacy, these groups provide education to their members, so there may be opportunities to present a non-alcohol topic (e.g., an overview of a new paid leave law). A simple webinar on a topic in your wheelhouse created with craft beverage producers in mind could open the door to a future client relationship.
The next time you visit your favorite brewery, winery, distillery, cidery, or meadery, don’t let unfamiliarity with alcohol law quash your curiosity. Ask if they’re in a guild and how you can get involved. Consider taking the pandemic-friendly approach and reach out through the Internet. You never know—it could lead to an entirely new line of business for you.
Watch "Learning the Basics: Starting a Craft Beverage Business" in the ABA On-Demand CLE library. All ABA members have unlimited, complimentary access to more than 600 widely-accredited online CLE webinars and on-demand programs in the ABA's Member Benefit Library.