WEST ALLIS - The Westallion Brewing Co. claims it would lose everything if an initiative to clarify Wisconsin alcohol regulations becomes law during this budget session.
An effort is under way to prevent craft breweries from distributing their products and operating taprooms where beer is sold directly to the public.
Mark Garthwaite of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild said the initiative is an "attempt to wall off how we get our products to market."
Kim Dorfner who owns the Westallion Brewing Co., 1825 S. 72nd St., West Allis, with her husband Erik, said what is being discussed would be disastrous for small breweries like theirs that depend on selling their beer in their taprooms.
"Our business model is to get local people in to drink our beer," Dorfner said. If what is being talked about went through, she said, "We'd lose everything."
To some in the alcohol industry, including the Tavern League, large brewers and major distributors, the argument falls flat.
State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander) said state alcohol regulations in Chapter 125 dictate that entrepreneurs must choose a purpose. Are they making a product, distributing a product or selling a product to the public? They must choose one and cannot bounce among all three.
State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, (R-Brookfield) said that view of Chapter 125 is an "overly strict interpretation."
Dorfner said of the idea: "It's the big guys trying to shut out the little guys."
The big breweries are trying to get rid of craft breweries because they are losing customers to them, Dorfner said. "People are looking to support more local."
The couple opened the Westallion brewery and pub April 2 after massively rehabbing a tired building. Westallion opened on the 111th birthday of West Allis.
June 22 to 25, Westallion held a grand opening weekend with all seven beers it wanted to offer, plus shuffleboard and other games and live music.
Dorfner's husband came out of the Marine Corps and the two followed the American Dream, she said. They own a business and make others happy, she said.
But if the initiative goes through, Dorfner said, "It would be an American nightmare."
Consternation over the issue led Swearingen to organize a meeting earlier this month for stakeholders in the alcohol industry to talk about the initiative and squelch what he called misinformation about earlier discussions.
"I wanted to see if the idea had some merit," he said. "Some kind of got it. Some didn't support all of it."
Word of the initiative spread when a working paper on creating an alcohol commission to better enforce Chapter 125 was leaked and social media sites picked it up and ran it, he said.
The state Department of Revenue is the current enforcement agency for Chapter 125. The initiative presents the possibility of creating the new agency, headed by an appointee from the governor.
Fear spread that initiative supporters would sneak it into the state budget at the last minute so it could become law.
Swearingen said there's presently no such push, no pending legislation or even draft legislation for an alcohol commission, which he argues is needed.
"The state Department of Revenue isn't really doing a job of enforcing liquor laws," Swearingen said.
Kooyenga said he's cautious about launching a new bureaucracy.
"There's story after story after story of people wanting to try new things and can't because of regulations," Kooyenga said. "We need to have less regulation and more opportunities."