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'Just leveling the playing field': 3 Washington breweries sue Oregon over distribution laws

Washington breweries hope their effort will make it easier and more affordable to distribute beer to Oregon businesses.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Three Washington breweries are suing the state of Oregon over laws they feel unfairly regulate shipping restrictions and beer distribution to Oregon businesses.

The plaintiffs are Garden Path Fermentation in Burlington, Mirage Beer in Seattle and Fortside Brewing Company in Vancouver.

The businesses filed their two-count complaint with the United States District Court in Portland in July. They allege that current Oregon law discriminates against out-of-state breweries in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s "Commerce Clause."

"It’s kind of economic discrimination," said Mike DiFabio, co-founder of Fortside Brewing.

Under Oregon law, Washington brewers cannot ship directly to Oregon customers' homes. But Oregon breweries can ship directly to homes in Washington. That's one complaint in the lawsuit. The other issue deals with distribution.

In Oregon, in-state breweries are allowed to self-distribute to licensed retail businesses. However, out-of-state breweries must go through a third-party distributor. Fortside started its own distribution company in Oregon but DiFabio said it's far from a fix-all.

"It's a whole other company, a whole other federal wholesalers permit, another state permit with the OLCC," DiFabio said. "It costs us thousands of dollars a year. … It's a pretty excessive cost for a small business."

The lawsuit addresses Oregon's three-tier control system of manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

"Why it's set up that was so a manufacturer doesn't exert influence over a retailer, so there's an even playing field for all brewers or other manufacturers," said Bryant Haley, a spokesperson for the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

Because the laws fall on the OLCC to enforce, its commissioner is named in the breweries’ lawsuit.

"We're in a holding pattern waiting to see what the courts play out," Haley said. "If the legislature wants to take action on this and perhaps give us different guidance, that's something that could come down the line. But as an administrative agency we're set to follow the laws and statutes put toward us."

Fortside is one of 32 breweries in Southwest Washington and one of just six of those 32 that distributes its beer to Oregon. Customer Mychael Dynes said the restrictions mean Oregonians don’t know what they’re missing out on.

"It just seems like there's great beer being made on both sides [of the Columbia River], so the rules around that should kind of mirror one another in my opinion," Dynes said. "These guys make great beer."

That’s something DiFabio will raise a glass to, likely at the upcoming Vancouver Summer Brewfest.

"It's not like we're getting an advantage to sell to Oregon," DiFabio said. "It's just leveling the playing field."

RELATED: Oregon Brewers Festival set to return this summer

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