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Craft brewers stay neutral on Sunday alcohol sales

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Russ Chargualaf watched in awe on Super Bowl Sunday as 600 growlers were filled in just five hours at Indianapolis' Thr3e Wise Men Brewing Co.

Thirsty football fans were buying something they could purchase at few other locations in the state.

Indiana's craft breweries account for only a tiny percentage of annual statewide beer sales, but they've enjoyed a sweet spot on Sundays for the past two-plus years. Along with wineries, microbreweries are allowed to sell their products to carryout customers on that day.

As the debate in the Statehouse about whether to expand alcohol sales intensifies, that sweet spot might be nearing its end.

For Indiana's growing craft beer fan base, it has been a chance to enjoy the hoppy creations of nearby breweries at home. On Super Bowl Sunday, it's a different story.

"It's the one day out of the year that carryout is just mind-blowing," Chargualaf, assistant general manager of Thr3e Wise Men, told the Journal & Courier of Lafayette. "But our numbers continue to increase every year for Sunday sales. People want alcohol on Sundays. We pour it fresh."

Lawmakers are considering whether to relax the state's liquor laws, which ban the sales of beer, wine and alcohol at most retail outlets on Sundays.

Indiana law allows Sunday alcohol sales in restaurants, bars, wineries and breweries, as well as at some special events.

Though they lobbied for the right to join that group in 2010, breweries aren't taking an official position in the debate about whether to expand Sunday alcohol sales to grocery and liquor stores.

"We are not taking a stance on the issue of broad-based Sunday alcohol sales," said Lee Smith, executive director of the Brewers of Indiana Guild. "We're interested in promoting our breweries and what is good for our breweries, but we're not for or against it."

The ability to sell carryout beer has made an impact on the state's rapidly growing number of craft breweries, a right the state's wineries have enjoyed for about three decades.

"Our customers love the fact they can ... leave with a six-pack or a growler on Sundays," said Chris Johnson, owner of People's Brewing Co. in Lafayette. "The other thing that Sunday carryout sales does is bring someone in that hasn't had our product. A lot of times, we can make customers out of them."

Has it helped the bottom line of the brewery known for its Farmer's Daughter wheat ale?

Johnson says "yes," but breweries weren't lobbying for Sunday carryout sales back in 2010 to compete with liquor stores.

"We've absolutely done better with carryout sales," he said. "But the basis behind trying to get the law changed (in 2010) wasn't to isolate ourselves."

And besides enjoying that he's one of the only options for those who wish to enjoy Sunday-purchased hops at home, he doesn't think an expansion of Indiana's liquor sales laws would harm his business.

"For the business, I like us having the ability and them not, but personally I really don't see it as a big deal," Johnson said. "I'm not worried about our sales decreasing."

Lafayette Brewing Co. owner Greg Emig agreed.

"It is what it is," Emig said. "Our product is a bit of a niche market."

Craft beer across the state accounted for just 2 percent of total Indiana beer sales, according to the guild. Smith said she anticipates that figure will rise along with the popularity of craft beer.

Though they're not taking a stand, brewers are watching the debate closely from the sidelines.

"I see both sides of the issue," Emig said. "It's a piece of legislation where somebody will ultimately feel wounded from it. It could have a very real economic impact."

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