New Jersey lawmakers are poised to vote Monday to lift restrictions on Garden State breweries — like bans on selling food, and limits on the number of TVs they can have — just days before a moratorium on enforcing the rules would expire.
If the bill successfully passes both chambers of the legislature on Monday, it would then be sent to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk in hopes that he signs it into law one day before the end of the current “lame duck” session of the Legislature.
“It seems that the stars are aligning in our favor for the first time in a long time,” Eric Orlando, director of the Brewers Guild of New Jersey said. He called the bill “a great start to the year” and said he’s very confident that it will make it to Murphy’s desk before the session ends.
Lawmakers unanimously passed a similar piece of legislation last summer, but the governor sent it back to them, saying he wouldn’t sign it unless they also incorporate liquor license reforms he’s been championing. For the past year, Murphy has been pushing to phase out New Jersey’s Prohibition-era caps on how many liquor licenses a town can award.
But Murphy stopped short of demanding a complete overhaul of New Jersey’s liquor license rules when he rejected the previous brewery bill with a conditional veto. Instead, he asked for more modest reforms, like a provision that gets inactive licenses back on the market.
State Sen. Vin Gopal, the prime sponsor of the bill, said the latest version of the bill addresses the issues Murphy raised with his conditional veto, and he’s cautiously optimistic that the governor will sign it if it passes.
The bill would do away with a limit on the number of special events breweries can hold on site, lifting a ban on selling food or partnering with vendors like food trucks at their facilities, remove limits on how many televisions a brewery can have and eliminate rules against showing certain major sporting and entertainment events.
“Just a lot of simple things to allow [breweries] as small businesses to operate without restrictions,” Gopal said.
The restrictions — which most lawmakers and the governor himself have said are unfair to brewers — first came about after a special ruling by the state’s Bureau of Alcohol and Beverage Control in 2019, and formally went into effect in July 2022. But the bureau took a mostly hands off approach to enforcing the rules. Then in the summer of 2023, it issued a six-month moratorium on enforcement, with the hopes that the legislature could work out a solution.
The state was slated to start enforcing the brewery restrictions on Jan. 1 of this year, but extended the moratorium another 16 days as negotiations continued.
The bill would also create a new farm brewing license. That provision says a farmer would be able to apply for a license to brew up to 2,500 barrels of a malt beverage with locally grown products. The state already offers a farm winery license that allows for the production of 50,000 gallons of wine per year.
The current bill also meets some of Murphy’s priorities, such as getting inactive liquor licenses back into the market. The bill would require any inactive license to be used or transferred to a neighboring municipality before the terms of the license expires.
Current rules restrict the number of licenses available in a town by its population. But the bill would let towns that have reached their limits acquire inactive licenses from neighboring municipalities. The bill limits towns to acquiring two additional licenses every five years.
Gopal said that would make it possible for large communities with inactive licenses to offload them to smaller neighbors.
“Previously, you were not allowed to transfer licenses from one municipality or another, so this is a good step in that direction,” he said.
The bill also gives towns the option to issue liquor licenses to businesses operating within shopping malls, another provision Murphy called for in his conditional veto.
Murphy’s office declined to comment on whether he’d sign the bill while it remains pending.
Amanda Stone, government affairs director for the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said this legislation is a “great update” to the current liquor license law.
“We have been advocating from the start to get the 1,400 inactive licenses back in the market and sold at fair market value. This bill does just that and even allows for towns to trade inactive licenses,” she said.