Wisconsin’s Alcohol Industry Gets Behind Update, Greater Enforcement of Law

Wisconsin’s craft brewers, including the maker of the popular Spotted Cow beer, large retailers like the Kwik Trip convenience store franchise and other producers, wholesalers and retailers are getting behind a rapidly moving proposal that would overhaul the state’s alcohol laws and lead to stricter enforcement efforts.

The measure, hammered out in the past five years largely between Republican lawmakers and the alcohol industry, is moving quickly through the GOP-controlled Legislature. It was introduced on Friday and was scheduled for a public hearing on Tuesday. The Legislature is expected to pass it in two weeks. Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ administration has also been involved with negotiations.

Most of the changes would not be noticeable to average alcohol consumers in the state, those who worked closely on the bill said. But the creation of a new division to oversee liquor laws could lead to the enforcement of largely ignored current laws, like a ban on the shipping of liquor or beer directly to a customer made popular through “beer of the month” clubs and nationwide mail-order catalogs that feature hard-to-get bourbon or other spirits.

The bill affects every level of the state’s alcohol industry governing the licensing, producing, selling and distribution of beer, wine and liquor. The so-called three-tier system, created in the 1930s, has been eyed for changes for years, but policy makers and the alcohol industry have been unable to reach agreement.

The three-tiered system was designed to prevent monopolies so the same entity could not produce and sell alcohol at the wholesale and retail levels. But the system has been criticized for years for not keeping up with changes in the industry, including the explosion of smaller craft breweries, the popularity of wedding barns and other innovations.

The bill would require venues that sell or allow alcohol at special events, known generally as wedding barns, to either get a permit or alcohol license to operate legally. The measure would also allow for craft breweries to sell products from other out-of-state breweries. Wineries could open earlier in the morning, at the same time as bars, to sell their products. The bill would also create new guidance for contract brewing, winemaking and distilling, a growing segment of the industry.

Perhaps the biggest change is creating a new division within the state Department of Revenue to regulate and oversee regulating the alcohol industry and enforcing the law. One of the loudest targets of criticism under the current system was the lack of a dedicated state office to interpret and enforce regulations.