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Sonoma County breweries, distilleries welcome state OK to serve drinkers without meals

Sonoma County breweries and distilleries will be able to serve outdoors without food service beginning Saturday, as the state loosened pandemic rules that those in the business said unfairly singled them out for tougher regulation than others in the food and drink sector.

Local brewery and distillery owners who had scrambled to bring in food trucks or other vendors to comply with the previous rules expressed relief on Friday that they could get back to their core business — serving craft alcoholic beverages.

“I’m glad they’re done with it,” Santa Rosa’s Cooperage Brewing Co. owner Tyler Smith said of state regulators. “It was just really frustrating for us to have to police something and explain to customers why they had to buy a meal when it didn’t even make sense to us.”

The brewery will continue bringing in area food trucks, Smith said. But food orders just won’t be a requirement for beer drinkers seeking to slake their thirst.

The guidelines on outdoor service now put breweries and distilleries on the same footing as wine-tasting rooms, which have been allowed to conduct outdoor tastings without food since July. The trade group representing California craft brewers sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s health officer in December, alleging the rules requiring brewery customers to buy a meal before they could consume beer on their premises were discriminatory.

“It was a hard position to put our brewers in,” said California Craft Brewers Association executive director Lori Ajax. “Some of our breweries were just not able to comply with providing a meal and so just couldn’t open their doors.”

Her part of the struggling hospitality sector needed to be able to take advantage of the state’s nascent reopening to make up lost ground, Ajax said. “I think this next couple months is going to be crucial for our craft brewers,” she said.

The association’s lawsuit against the state was still pending Friday.

“We’re going to reassess and wait for this guidance to take effect,” Ajax said. Her group was not involved in developing the new rules and they were not a legal or official response to the lawsuit, she said.

Despite the resentment of many in his field toward the food service requirement, Moonlight Brewing’s Brian Hunt said he was grateful to state regulators for their flexibility during the pandemic.

“I am astounded that an agency as historically stubborn as the [California Alcoholic Beverage Control] recognized the need to do something for all these businesses,” he said. “Was it perfect? Hell no. would I want to be the person in charge with figuring out how to do this? Hell no.”

Brewers and craft distillers aren’t alone in pushing for loosened rules during the pandemic. Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, is one of several state lawmakers promoting bills to try and change restrictions on alcohol sales through state law. Dodd has a bill to legalize the sale of to-go cocktails that will get its first committee hearing next month. He has suggested he would eliminate the requirement that to-go beverages be paired with food orders as well.

"I'm happy to see these businesses that have been struggling over the past year be able to operate with more flexibility," Dodd said in a statement about the announcement for distilleries and breweries. "However, they must continue to take appropriate safeguards against infection but requiring masks and by keeping customers a safe distance apart."

Breweries, distilleries and wineries are not entirely free of pandemic restrictions, however.

At establishments located in counties that are in either the purple or red tier, the two strictest, patrons will be required to make reservations and be subject to a 90-minute time limit, and on-site consumption must stop by 8 p.m., according to new state health guidance that is effective Saturday.

Those businesses can begin to open indoors as their home counties progress further, though capacity will be limited to 25% or 100 people, whichever is fewer, in the more lenient orange tier; and 50% or 200 people, whichever is fewer, in the least-strict yellow tier.

Sonoma and Contra Costa counties were the lone Bay Area counties remaining in the purple tier on Friday, though statewide progress on vaccines is set to pave the way for more broad reopening and expanded business operations by Sunday, state officials announced.

Until indoor service resumes, breweries, wineries and distilleries that do serve food will continue to be governed by the same rules applied to restaurants — meaning that in Sonoma County in-person service will be limited to outdoors only.

Fogbelt Brewing Co., also in Santa Rosa, is a full-service restaurant in addition to being a brew house. The establishment operates under the health guidelines for restaurants, co-owner Paul Hawley said. His business will therefore continue to be required to serve meals with their beer, he said. On the flip side, he will be able to offer limited indoor service when the county does shift into the red tier.

The loosening restrictions were a positive sign for the industry, he said, as people begin to seek normalcy after many isolated months. “The sense of things getting better and getting safer to go out and enjoy a beer will bring people out,” Hawley said. Warmer weather will also help drive sales, he hoped.

Desperate to keep up sales, many brewers sought to increase their distribution in liquor and grocery stores. So much so, that when Hawley sought to increase his own distribution capabilities he ran into a shortage of aluminum cans through his suppliers. That shortage lasted throughout the summer and fall, he said.

Removing the meal requirement might bring back those engaged in “brewery hopping,” Pat Delves, the marketing director at Seismic Brewing Co. in Sebastopol, said. The requirements governing what counted as a “meal” under the old rules were for substantive fare, and the amount of food that needed to be ordered discouraged craft beer lovers from visiting multiple establishments to savor different styles.

“It’s a big difference,” Delves said of the new rules.

Hunt, with Moonlight Brewing, looked forward to serving more customers who just wanted a beer, he said — for the sake of the employees who depend on his business to pay rent and grocery bills, for the sake of his customers and for his own sake.

“The ability for me to serve customers beers while they’re sitting and relaxed and trying to have just some semblance of real life ... I need it,” he said, adding that he would continue to maintain an eye toward safety at his brewery. “By the same token, I don’t want to be the place where people come, act irresponsibly and spread COVID-19.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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