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Beer, wine coalition presses Congress to act on permanent federal excise tax relief

Key Points
  • One provision in the 2017 tax overhaul has slashed federal excise taxes for the craft beer, wine and distilling sectors.
  • But the excise tax relief will sunset at the end of this year unless Congress extends it.
  • There's a push underway by a coalition of industry groups to get a bill passed that makes the excise tax cuts permanent.
Aleksandar Karanov | iStock | Getty Images

One provision in the 2017 tax overhaul slashed federal excise taxes for the craft beer, wine and distilling sectors. But that tax relief will sunset at the end of this year unless Congress extends it.

There's a push underway by a coalition of industry groups to get a bill passed that makes the excise tax cuts permanent.

"The savings will allow wineries across America — most of which are small, family-owned businesses — to hire new employees, upgrade equipment and invest in the future growth of their wineries," said Robert Koch, president and CEO of the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based wine industry trade group.

The excise tax cuts helped some California wineries cope with a decline in sales in the aftermath of the devastating wine country fires in October 2017. The fires destroyed more than 8,700 structures, including entire neighborhoods and some winery buildings, and killed 44 people. After the fires, tourism in the state's Napa wine region took a hit, which affected numerous wineries.

"Most of our sales are direct to consumers, primarily people visiting the winery," said Robin Baggett, owner of Alpha Omega Winery in Napa. "We had a huge drop-off for 6 to 8 months after the fires."

Baggett said the federal excise tax relief passed in 2017 allowed the winery to boost its staff and soften the financial blow of the fire. Also, he said the winery gave a pay increase to workers and expanded inventories.

He cautions that if the cuts are not extended, though, it could have a "negative" impact on the industry and force businesses to "rethink expansion."

For wineries, the 2017 reform slashed excise taxes by as much as 69%. Craft brewers, including some family-owned small breweries, saw their excise tax rates get halved.

The proposed legislation, House Resolution 1175, would make the federal excise tax cuts permanent for the alcohol industry. Currently 226 House members are listed as supporting H.R. 1175, and at least 65 members of the Senate back the companion legislation, Senate Bill 362.

"We have Democrats and Republicans supporting this," said Baggett, who was part of an industry group that visited Washington recently to press Congress to act. He pointed out that support has been growing in the past month. "We just recently were able to get more than half of the House to sign onto the bill as sponsors and well more than half of the Senate."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced SB 362. "Modernizing burdensome rules and taxes for craft beverage producers has allowed them to grow their businesses and attract top talent," Wyden told CNBC.

"I recently met with brewers, and one told me that tax breaks have allowed them to offer health insurance for the first time," Wyden said. "These small businesses need certainty to plan for the future, which is why it's so important to make these reforms permanent."

"This is not a bill about lowering alcohol prices or beer prices," said Bob Pease, president and CEO of the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colorado-based trade group for U.S. craft breweries. "This is about small business, job creation, economic revitalization and urban manufacturing."

Back in 2018, the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated the alcohol tax law changes would result in the industry saving more than $4 billion in taxes over two years. Also, the Brookings Institution think tank last year said the savings are flowing not just to small businesses but "foreign and large domestic producers."

"For years we were advocating for this [2017] legislation for it to impact just small and independent breweries," said Pease. "For the bill to get passed, though, in Washington, compromise is often the order of the day."

The measure that ultimately ended up getting passed in 2017 included excise tax relief for both large and small alcoholic beverage producers.

"Some people say the large brewers get $12 million a year in federal excise tax savings," said Pease. "But when you look at how much [MillerCoors and AB InBev] pay in federal excise tax, it's in the billions."

Under the 2017 tax changes, the federal excise tax rate for small craft brewers producing less than 2 million barrels of beer per year went from $7 to $3.50 per barrel, or a cut in half, for the first 60,000 barrels. The lion's share of the craft breweries in the nation make less than 60,000 barrels of beer a year.

A survey by the brewers group found many would use savings from the excise tax cuts to hire more workers and reinvest in their businesses, including upgrading facilities or expanding operations.

"It will be a big deal if it's renewed, or if it doesn't renew it's a 100% tax increase essentially on everybody in the industry," said Brook Bristow, an attorney and executive director of the South Carolina Brewers Guild.