Profile: The Man Watching Over New Jersey’s Beer, Wine, and Spirits

Tara Nurin | January 29, 2014 | Profiles
Meet Michael Halfacre, Director of the NJ Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC)

Michael Halfacre
Name: Michael Halfacre

Age: 47

Born, raised, currently resides: Fair Haven, Monmouth County

What he did before heading up the ABC: After earning a political science degree from Florida State University and a law degree from the University of Dayton, Halfacre returned to his hometown to become a prosecutor and start a law practice specializing in real estate transactions and ABC licenses. He later lead the borough as a two-term Republican mayor. Former Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa appointed him to lead the ABC, a division within the attorney general’s law and public safety department, in February 2012.

What he does with an $11 million budget and 60 employees: According to the ABC, the director is required to supervise the “manufacture, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages” and investigate possible violations of law.

“In the course of typical day I’ll deal with everything from licensing to enforcement to a constitutional issue,” he said. Constitutional issues, as they pertain to the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which regulates inter- and intra-state commerce, tend to arise over a law implemented shortly after his arrival that permits the direct shipping of wine into New Jersey.

What he likes about his job: Other than managing employees, he deeply enjoys wrangling with legal issues, especially the commerce clause. “Until I got to the ABC I hadn’t discussed the commerce clause since law school,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a fascinating part of the law.”

How he feels about presiding over a historic first (maybe): Halfacre is first ABC director since before Prohibition (that anyone knows of) to license a full-production distillery in New Jersey (Jersey Artisan Distilling in Fairfield). Though he acknowledges the historic nature of permitting the state’s first known distillery in more than 80 years, he says the process isn’t much different from permitting any other alcohol-manufacturing business. Background checks, inspection processes, federal tax issues . . .

What he considers his biggest challenges: Halfacre took over the ABC in the middle of a series of major reforms to Prohibition-era laws governing the production and sale of the state’s wine, beer, and spirits: “There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of statutory change in New Jersey in those 80 years,” he said. “Change is hard sometimes . . . (but) it’s been fairly seamless.”

He does, however, note an exception to the seamlessness: technology. For example, the division’s software had to be completely retooled to allow for a new out-of-state winery license after the state passed the direct shipping law, which lets small-batch producers sell up to 12 cases per year directly to individual consumers in New Jersey. Since then, the state has also created a craft brewery license and a craft distillery license. As a professed advocate for business-friendly regulations and interactions, he appreciates that the nation and state are trending toward more small endeavors in the beer, wine and spirits industry.

What he’s working on now: Again, technology. In an effort to build efficiencies into the bureaucratic reporting required by suppliers, distributors and retailers, he’s starting to digitize what he calls an “archaic” system.

His first program targets the licensing and registration system, which tracks 60,000 different brand registrations — every alcoholic product sold in state — which will be replaced within six to 12 months. He explains it like this: “If I own a liquor store in Red Bank I don’t want to have to fill out a 12-page form every June and take it down to the post office along with a check. Instead, I want that store owner to check off a couple of boxes online and enter a credit card number.”

His second project involves enlisting 10 distributors in a pilot program to submit their monthly product price list online. Now they have to communicate their prices to retail accounts in the form of a booklet printed monthly. After the registration system goes online sometime this year, distributors should be able to submit prices via computer, where retail accounts can look them up on their own computers.

What he does for fun with his wife and three children, aged 9-18: “I’m kind of boring,” he said. Reading, exercising and getting back into swimming, he answers after pausing to consider the question.

What’s his poison? Gin. Red wine, particularly Pinot Noir, with a burgeoning interest in bourbon.