Brewers sue Gov. Newsom over pandemic rules requiring food with beer

California Craft Brewers Association alleged in federal court that breweries are being treated unfairly since wineries were granted an exception to the meal requirement.|

The trade group representing California craft breweries has sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s public health officer alleging public health rules the state enacted in July requiring brewery customers to buy a meal before they could consume beer on their premises was discriminatory.

California Craft Brewers Association filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Los Angeles, claiming the food requirement imposed on breweries, but not wineries, violated the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The issue emerged this summer when the California Department of Public Health’s coronavirus pandemic guidelines had required brewpubs, breweries, bars, pubs and craft distilleries to provide meals with on-site alcohol service.

However, wineries were granted an exception. Napa Valley vintners had protested against the meal requirement because their county’s 1990 winery definition ordinance prohibited wineries from offering meals.

State health department officials said in July that craft breweries and distilleries are more like bars than wineries and had more “physical movement” and “social mixing” among customers.

On Tuesday, state health department officials could not be reached to comment on the litigation brought last week by the state craft brewers association.

Under new state public health guidelines issued earlier this month, on-site consumption of food and drink at any establishment was temporarily suspended in Sonoma County and most of the state because of the resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

Still, craft brewers questioned the state health department’s reasoning over the summer, especially in Sonoma County where places such as Sebastopol’s Barlow outdoor shopping and dining complex features wineries and breweries near each other. For example, Pax Wines is located there across the street from Woodfour Brewing Co.

Those guests did not appear to be acting any differently despite drinking different beverages, said Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Co. in Windsor and a member of the state brewers association board.

“We're really just looking to see parity with wineries and remove this meal requirement because, in our opinion, the winery tasting room and the brewery taproom model are not that different,” Cilurzo said.

Russian River has its own brewpubs in Santa Rosa and Windsor selling food, so the brewer didn’t need to bring a food truck on its property as many other smaller brewers did to comply with the state’s mandate. But some Russian River customers walked away after being informed they had to buy food with their beer, she said.

That also occurred at 3 Disciples Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, which opened an outdoor beer garden this summer in an adjacent parking lot so it could provide food service.

“It definitely pushed customers away,” said James Claus, co-owner of the brewery that opened in 2019. “There were certain situations where they didn’t want to order food.”

Like other smaller breweries that don’t have a kitchen, 3 Disciples partnered with local food truck operators to provide meals. While lining up the trucks daily could be cumbersome, Claus said it was a positive experience overall and he hopes to have a “lasting” business relationship with some of them.

Meanwhile, the state brewers trade group worries that more smaller breweries struggling with state and county operating limitations during the pandemic could fail in 2021, Cilurzo said.

There were about 1,000 breweries in the state before the pandemic. None of the roughly 30 Sonoma County breweries have closed during the pandemic, but two local beer taprooms that didn’t serve food did shut their doors.

“There's a lot of breweries that won't make it through this shutdown,” Cilurzo said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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