Working In the Alcohol Industry

By Mollie Schwam

Before I started working at Beer Law Center I had no idea about the mountain of paperwork that selling alcohol entailed. I was not even aware about the particular process that businesses had to go through in order to sell alcohol. I tell people that I work with alcohol rules and regulations, because sprouting out a list of acronyms such as ABC, TTB, COLA, etc. does not make much sense to people who are not familiar with this type of work. Very few law firms are solely devoted to alcohol laws and regulations. In addition to the application process, I did not know that alcohol law can overlap and influence other areas of law.

The selling and manufacturing of alcohol is extremely regulated by the federal and state governments. Counties also have particular rules and local ordinances, too, regarding manufacturing and/or selling alcohol. Some towns, cities, counties have a special process of approving alcohol sales that is separate from a state-controlled agency. If you’re involved in this type of work you have to be knowledgeable about the specific requirements for the federal and state governments, as well as your local counties. Not knowing the laws or required paperwork can be detrimental to your client’s business and possibly cause a delay in getting their alcohol permit.

The N.C. Alcohol Beverage Control Commission (ABC) governs all alcohol permits in N.C. Every N.C. alcohol permit is issued by the ABC. Every state has an alcohol compliance department, but it might be called something different than simply “ABC.” West Virginia’s state agency is called the WV Alcohol Beverage Control Administration (WV ABCA) and Virginia’s alcohol authority is called the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Authority (VA ABCA), just to name a few. Since all states have their own version of the “ABC,” the rules and how applications are accepted differ among states. Beer Law Center recently expanded into Virginia and West Virginia and learning how those states regulate alcohol has definitely been a major task. The ABC applications as a whole can range from 20 pages (on the light side) to over 100 pages.

Every alcohol retailer (someone who sells to consumers), every restaurant, all the craft breweries, distilleries, wineries, bottle shops, etc. that sells alcohol has to go through a special process in order to be legally compliant. A retailer does not simply start selling alcohol; a brewery does not immediately start producing beer. All applicants are vetted, background checks are conducted, fingerprint cards are stored on file, and invasive forms are filled out. Once an ABC application is completed, then the NC ABC will review the application and (hopefully) issue the permit(s). Once the client receives their N.C. ABC permit, we are usually “done” with that client; unless that client wants to hire us for another project outside of alcohol permitting.

ABC applications also lead to discoveries in other parts of the law. Many zoning issues arise when an alcohol business is applying for an ABC license. For example, part of the ABC paperwork includes having an inspection of the premises; sometimes during the inspection an issue with zoning will occur, such as the premise isn’t zoned correctly for commercial use or the patron-to-bathroom ratio is not correct. Business law can also factor into alcohol laws; companies need to submit the Bylaws or operating agreement to the N.C. ABC. Some of our clients have hired us without any company Bylaws or an operating agreement, and we have had to supply the client with one. We have also encountered clients who are in the process of buying an existing brewery, distillery, or bottle shop and need legal counsel for the buying or selling process.

As you can see I’m not just limited to working strictly with alcohol law; working with alcohol businesses in N.C. and across the country has exposed me to many types of legal work, such as business law, trademark enforcement and registration, contract/lease review, distribution law, employment agreements, etc. My work is never mundane.

Mollie is a North Carolina Certified Paralegal and is in the process of becoming certified by NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants). To take a break from work Mollie enjoys reading books, preferably historical fiction by Philippa Gregory, and hiking along North Carolina trails with her small, yet feisty, dog.