A little-noticed bill that slipped through the Legislature this year is sending a chill through the state's small but growing hard cider industry.
The bill, known as AB 779, makes a seemingly minor technical change to the state's alcohol licensing laws. It allows large beer brewers, those producing more than 1.9 million gallons per year, to produce and sell cider at their facilities without obtaining a separate license.
Normally beer and cider makers require separate licenses, since cider is considered a form of wine under both state and federal law.
Tilted Shed Ciderworks
Cider makers say it's too early to determine whether the new law poses a threat to their business, but they expressed outrage about discovering the rules had been changed to favor another industry breaking into the market.
"When I saw it, I thought 'Oh, great now can I make beer?'" said Ellen Cavalli, co-owner of Tilted Shed, a small cidery in Sebastopol. The bill does not, in fact, allow cider makers to make beer.
"I don't see how this is fair," she said. "The competitive disadvantage is just so unfair."
The law could also accelerate a worrisome trend for cider producers, at least five of which are headquartered in apple-rich Sonoma County. The large beer companies, including Anheuser-Busch, are moving strongly into their market, which is one of the fastest-growing segments of the alcoholic beverage industry.
"Cider is hot as a pistol right now and everybody and his brother wants to get in," said Jeffrey House, head of Sebastopol-based California Cider Company, maker of the Ace Cider line, one of the largest independently owned cideries in the country.
Cider makers say they were completely unaware of the bill until The Press Democrat called to inquire about it, despite the fact that it passed the state Senate and Assembly with no opposition and was signed by the governor on Sept. 27.
Mike Faul, owner of Sunnyvale-based Red Branch Cider, said he worries that well-financed breweries will use their marketing muscle to dominate the emerging cider market and limit the ability of craft producers to find space on store shelves or bar taps.