Boston Beverage Bureaucracy and the Morass of Massachusetts Alcohol Regulations

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Observe / Analyze

Posted: 12/28/2017

On Friday, November 17, 2017 Trillium Brewing Company announced plans to operate an indoor winter beer garden in the historic Roslindale Substation Building ” in partnership with Roslindale Village Main Street.” The post included:

“We had a killer time with the Garden on the Greenway this summer so we jumped at the chance to bring Trillium to another Boston neighborhood,” said Trillium co-owner Esther Tetreault. “Our goal has always been to build a strong community and share what we do. The Substation is such a unique and iconic space, in a welcoming neighborhood, making Roslindale a perfect winter home for the Trillium Garden.”

“Beer aficionados will have the unique opportunity to drink Trillium’s award-winning beer in the Substation’s awe-inspiring space, with its 34 foot ceilings, 18-foot copper clad doors, 250-ton capacity gantry crane, and six two-story windows,” said Alia Hamada Forrest, RVMS’s [Roslindale Village Main Street] Executive Director. “Where Trillium goes, its fans follow. I’m eager to welcome the newcomers that will discover Roslindale’s existing mix of vibrant restaurants and retail options, and hope that these types of creative partnerships continue to spark across all of Boston Main Street districts. We know when you visit — you will want to return.”

The ‘Trillium Garden at the Substation’ pop-up is a good, interim solution for a very cool (and huge), historic, vacant space while the search for a long-term tenant continues. The RVMS website adds:

RVMS identified and sought out Trillium because of its national reputation, loyal following, and successful track record of working in partnership with food, arts, and cultural pop-up events in non-traditional spaces.

Built in 1911, the Substation functioned as part of the Boston Elevated Railway Company’s then revolutionary alternating electric current power system. Designed by architect Robert Peabody of Peabody and Stearns with Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation, the Substation is one of six nearly identical converter substations built in and around Boston at that time. It has been vacant since the 1970s. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Prellwitz Chilinski Associates of Cambridge was the architect for the renovation.

To use Alia Hamada’s (RVMS executive director) words, how do these creative partnerships happen? And why aren’t the details transparent to the public? Unless I’m missing something, the detailed information is not readily available online as it should be.

In January of 2017, Dan Adams in the Boston Globe reported on a long-overdue Massachusetts initiative to review how the state regulates alcohol in a piece titled, ‘Everything is on the table’ in sweeping review of state alcohol rules. From the piece:

Massachusetts Treasurer Deborah Goldberg is throwing open the doors to the most extensive rethinking of how the state regulates alcohol since the end of Prohibition, directing a new task force to create a more cohesive set of rules that “deals with the 21st century.”

With no limits from Goldberg on which issues it may consider, the group of seven legal and political figures — with input from the public and bars, brewers, distributors, and other companies — will have broad authority to set its own agenda when it meets for the first time later in January(2017).

Among the issues that officials and industry executives suggested could be reviewed: extending the hours for package stores, lifting caps on liquor licenses in each municipality, allowing beer-makers to switch distributors more easily, loosening restrictions on consumers bringing alcohol to restaurants or reusing growlers, boosting funding to the chronically understaffed Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, or clarifying rules about so-called pay-to-play incentives.

Many recommendations would require approval by the Massachusetts Legislature. And lawmakers have been reluctant to make comprehensive changes to state alcohol laws, in part because of heavy lobbying by some members of the industry.

Even so, the effort is already the source of anxiety among brewers, distributors, bars, package stores, and other companies with alcohol licenses. While most agree the current regulatory system is needlessly complex and unclear, each segment is worried that changes sought by other businesses will hurt its own bottom line.

As if the antiquated MA liquor licensing laws aren’t confusing enough, when you consider that the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission (ABCC) has to operate ‘in concert with’ each MA municipality (with their own ‘rules’), clarity becomes  even more elusive…

From the Mass.Gov website:

The Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission is an agency under the Massachusetts State Treasury. Our overall objective is to provide uniform control over the sale, transportation, possession, purchasing, and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages in the state.

Who we serve

We work with companies in the alcoholic beverage industry and municipal licensing authorities to provide licenses, enforce legislation and regulations, and resolve license issues.

Updates on substantive progress from the state have been scarce. The Massachusetts Alcohol Task Force released a preliminary report in August of 2017 that included, “We anticipate providing a final report before the end of the year.”

[I spoke with Chandra Allard, Communications Director for the Office of the Treasurer and Receiver General for the State of MA on 12/27/17. She was extremely professional and helpful, and mentioned that the independent MA Alcohol Task Force was on schedule, and that the Treasurer’s office was expecting the report any day. She offered to forward the report to me, and I will edit this post to include it as soon as I receive it.] 

Edit 12/28/17:  Copy of Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission of Massachusetts: Task Force Report

On Sunday, November 12, 2017, the Boston Globe ran a front page story titled, Scores of Cambridge restaurants paid six figures for a liquor license. Others got them for free. As the title suggests, the process of obtaining a liquor license for Cambridge, MA restaurant owners is complicated, inconsistent, and often frustrating and maddening. The article states that “Nothing on the Cambridge License Commission’s website or at its offices explained how to get a free license,” and that there is “… a long line of Cambridge restaurant owners ensnared in an opaque and arbitrary system in which commissioners granted liquor licenses for free to some, while others had to pay up to $450,000 — sometimes at the direct urging of city officials.”

Excerpts from the Globe piece:

City officials belatedly recognized the regulatory mess they created. A new license commission chair was appointed in January 2016 to help clean up the system. Nicole Murati Ferrer formerly worked at Boston’s licensing agency and was charged with bringing Cambridge in line with state law.

In a Globe interview, Murati Ferrer distanced herself from a number of the commission’s past actions. She is relaxing the hurdles to get free licenses, and she has stopped the commission’s practice of urging license seekers to make deals with particular sellers, which had effectively put the city in the middle of high-cost, private transactions.

But Murati Ferrer made no apologies for past policies on issuing licenses, or the negative consequences for owners caught in the middle. She said the commission had no duty at hearings to inform owners of their options, and that people needed to seek information from the city earlier in the process.

“Our job is not to decide whether you negotiated a good deal,’’ Murati Ferrer said. “The rules and regulations were out there.”

“… the process was uneven at best, as commissioners tried to find middle ground between handing out free licenses and making applicants buy them. They often stretched ethical boundaries, and at times broke the commission’s own rules and state law, according to city and state officials.”

One of the biggest complaints from Cambridge restaurateurs was the lack of transparency in the process of issuing licenses.

As a result of the investigative Boston Globe piece, on November 14, 2017, the Globe ran a follow up piece stating that:

A state agency is investigating the way liquor licenses have been issued in the city of Cambridge, officials said Tuesday, and is focusing on practices that may have violated state laws.

State Treasurer Deb Goldberg, who oversees the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, said she found “troubling” the findings in a Boston Globe report on Sunday that examined liquor license transactions in Cambridge. She said her office was “looking into any allegations of wrongdoing that violate state law.”

Clearly, there is a still a significant amount of work to be done to bring fairness and uniformity to the laws, requirements, procedures, and communications related to local and state liquor licensing in Massachusetts. Which brings us back to the Roslindale.

The original announcement about the Trillium Garden at the Substation and/or the opening on December 7, 2017 was reported on by several Boston news outlets. Even reporting on the complicated licensing process can be confusing as hell, as evidenced in this piece by  Universal Hub. As they often do, none of the media outlets reporting on the opening of Trillium in Roslindale included any public information about the alcohol license, a hearing regarding the license, Neighborhood Association meetings, Fire Dept inspection, certificate of occupancy, or permitting (building or otherwise).

No reporting I’ve seen includes answers to the following:

  1. Exactly what type of alcohol license was issued? [Farmer Brewer License, Farmer-Series Pouring PermitPub Brewery License.] Was it a combination of these and/or part of Boston’s special license initiative to encourage commerce in specific neighborhoods?
  2. What are the restrictions/requirements of the specific beverage license issued? (Beer brewed onsite in Roslindale, etc?) My understanding is that Trillium beer is brewed in Fort Point and Canton only, not Roslindale.
  3. What are the restriction/requirements with respect to serving food? Why isn’t Trillium Garden at the Substation required to serve food out of an ISD-inspected kitchen operating within their facility?
  4. Will neighboring restaurants/purveyors be given preference as food vendors? [Sophia Eppolito reports in the Boston Globe on 12/19 that local food vendors will be invited, and that visitors can bring their own food.]
  5. Where did the license come from?
  6. How much did it cost?
  7. Was the license pre-existing?
  8. Is the license a succession of temporary monthly licenses, renewable or transferable?
  9. Who holds the license, the tenant or the landlord?
  10. Was there a public hearing before the license was issued? If not, why not?
  11. Were there public Neighborhood Association meetings conducted before the license was granted? If not, why not? If yes, are there minutes?
  12. If this was a unique/special license granted, were neighboring restaurants/bars invited to a hearing to ask questions, discuss their concerns or voice their support?
  13. How does the Roslindale neighborhood governing body interact with the city of Boston, State of MA,  and Feds (TTB) to ensure that the process of issuing alcohol licenses is consistent and fair for every licenses issued?
  14. Does the issuance of this specific license pave the way for others to follow suit so “these types of creative partnerships continue to spark across all of Boston Main Street districts?” If yes, is anyone (local, city, state, and Fed levels) collaborating on a ‘playbook’ to show others how to replicate and simplify the licensing process?
  15. Why aren’t most of the answers to the questions above readily accessible online?

When I spoke with Chandra Allard with the MA Treasurer’s office, she noted that after they review/analyze the MA Alcohol Task Force report, they will prioritize the recommendations based on what positive changes they can implement immediately, then changes that will require legislation and/or legal proceedings. She also mentioned that the public is welcome to continue to submit recommendations to the MA Treasury Department’s Constituent Services Team via this link. After I read the report, I will be submitting my recommendations based on the questions above, your comments below, and everything else I can read on these issues.

Currently there are a lot of questions, few answers, and a morass of longstanding, complicated issues that need to be addressed. Clarity, consistency, and complete transparency are some of the most pressing.

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