Sorini, now head of
“We had a knockdown, drag-out litigation” against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Sorini said. “I still remember how much fun it was.”
Since then, Sorini has built a career out of representing beverage suppliers — including craft brewers such as Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada — when they deal with government regulation, distribution issues and litigation. His practice overlaps with many areas of the law — corporate, tax, customs, contracts, intellectual property and advertising, to name a few.
“It’s kind of exciting,” he said. “You don’t get pulled into a single legal specialty, it’s more of an industry specialty.”
Sorini’s expertise is unusual, though not unique — and it is becoming a hot area of the law now that craft beers are snowballing in popularity. In 2013, craft brewers sold an estimated $14.3 billion in beer, up 20 percent from $11.9 billion in 2012, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group for craft brewers.
“I got where I am through a love of craft beers and craft brewers,” Sorini said. “I started getting very interested in beers early in my legal career. It occurred to me it’d be fun if I could represent these guys, and lo and behold, you can.”
Sorini signed his first beverage client in the late 1990s, a small, now-defunct brewery in Massachusetts, and soon after caught a big break by signing the Brewers Association of America — which later became the Brewers Association. He began writing legal articles about franchise law and its impacts on small brewers, and called up Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch to get his thoughts on the matter.
Koch introduced Sorini to Koch’s lawyer at the time, Raymond Williams, a leading alcohol industry attorney at McDermott. Williams, who has since retired, recruited Sorini to McDermott, and the two worked together for several years. Sorini considers him a mentor.
Sorini declined to share specific financials about the firm’s alcohol regulatory group, but said that since 2005, the group’s billings have multiplied four-fold.
“It’s a small practice area, though it seems like now there are more people getting into it,” he said. “Part of it is because there are so many small suppliers that the proliferation of lawyers who specialize in this area seems to have increased greatly.”
When Sorini first started attending the annual Craft Brewers Conference in 1998, attendance barely reached 2,000 people — and he was one of only two lawyers there. The conference now attracts about 9,000 people, and is teeming with lawyers, he said.
Today, Sorini is plenty busy. He has been advocating for an exemption in beer franchise law that would give small brewers more leeway in starting and ending relationships with distributors. McDermott has also lobbied on legislation that would reduce the rate of excise tax for smaller brewers who make less than 6 million barrels of beer a year.
Brewers are also mobilizing around the Food Safety Modernization Act, a law passed in 2011 that put into place stricter rules for food producers and manufacturers. Previously, brewers — which often sell or give spent grain to farmers to use as animal feed — were exempt from safety rules that apply to animal feed manufacturers. But a proposed Food and Drug Administration rule could remove that exemption. Brewers are now trying to persuade the FDA that is not a good idea.
Just don’t ask Sorini to name his favorite beer — he has too many.
Dogfish Head’s “60 Minute IPA rocks, it’s always in the rotation in my fridge,” he said. “I love [Dogfish Head] Midas Touch. My favorite [Port City] is the Imperial Stout. And those are just the locals. There are dozens I’ve fallen in love with. I’ve always had a soft spot for Brooklyn [Black Chocolate] Stout, it tastes like liquid Tootsie Roll.”