NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The beer industry has swung its support behind a bill to allow Tennessee supermarkets and convenience stores to sell wine — provided the measure also allows them to sell strong beer.
Tennessee Malt Beverage Association President Rich Foge confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that his board decided to drop its long opposition to changing the law. In return, the beer makers want a provision allowing grocery stores to sell high-gravity beer, which has higher alcohol content and is currently only allowed to be sold in liquor stores.
"If the marketplace is going to change where regular beer and wine are sold side-by-side on a grocery store shelf, high-gravity beer should be, too," Foge said.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, have made it a priority to pass the bill seeking to allow cities and counties that already allow liquor sales to hold referendums on whether to allow supermarket wine sales.
Current law keeps supermarkets and convenience stores from selling beer stronger than 5 percent by weight, which is the equivalent of about 6.5 percent in the more common measure of alcohol by volume. Anything stronger can only be sold in liquor stores, which aren't allowed to sell any items beyond booze and lottery tickets.
Foge said the speakers' strong support for the measure played into his association's decision to change course on the bill.
"We had a long discussion about it and one of things that got serious consideration is that the speakers of both chambers urged the parties to come to the table," he said. "And we're heeding that advice."
The bill opposed by liquor wholesalers and the association representing package store owners has cleared its first legislative committees in both chambers. The Senate Finance Committee was scheduled to take up the measure on Tuesday.
Ramsey applauded the new willingness to discuss the bill.
"All I ever wanted was for them to come to the table and negotiate, and until this bill started moving in committees they weren't willing to," he said. "I think we'll reach a compromise that at least the malt beverage industry can get on board with - hopefully the liquor store owners, too."
The beer industry also wants lawmakers to consider changing distribution laws for high-gravity beer, which currently falls under the same restrictions as liquor. They include that distributors can only be located in cities with populations of more than 100,000, and that regular beer and high-gravity beers must be warehoused separately, Foge said.
"We'd just like to see that changed," he said.