A new bill that would allow high-gravity craft beer to join wine on grocery store shelves by 2017 passed through the Senate State and Local Government Committee with a unanimous vote.
This makes for a smoother trip through the legislature than the seven-year battle faced by the wine in grocery stores bill that passed into law last month.
State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, author of the wine bill, is now pushing legislation that would extend the maximum alcohol content of beer sold in grocery stores from 5 percent alcohol by weight to 8 percent, opening the market for a number of beers that can currently only be sold through liquor stores or restaurants.
"It took a lot of work pulling everyone together," said Ketron, who said a key to the agreement was delaying the bill's action until 2017.
Current Tennessee code requires a distillery license to brew intoxicating beverages over 5 percent alcohol content, and a liquor license to sell it.
A distillery cannot sell its product on its own premises, which means that visitors to Nashville's Yazoo Brewing Company taproom cannot buy the brewer's only high-gravity offering, an award-winning porter named Sue. Ketron's bill would allow it.
"People want it," said Yazoo taproom manager Alan Fey, "but we have to tell them we can't sell it because of Tennessee's crazy liquor laws."
Sue's alcohol content by weight is 7.36 percent, which is fairly strong for a beer but still lower than the alcohol content for most wines.
Yazoo master brewer Linus Hall said the brewery "has been holding on to a couple" recipes for more high-gravity beers.
"Craft beer is currently the fastest-growing segment of the industry," Ketron said. "We're way behind."
"Once the cap opens up, you're going to see a lot of brewers expand," Hall said.
In 2011 Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the second-best-selling craft brewer in the country, identified Alcoa, Tenn., as a possible location for a second brewery, but in 2013 it ultimately chose a town on the other side of the Smokies, Mills River, N.C., settling in a state with friendlier liquor laws.