Assemblyman Marc Levine seeks to update state laws governing craft brewers, distillers

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A North Coast lawmaker is pushing for significant changes to California’s alcohol and business regulations to help the state’s small producers of beer and spirits.

As chairman of the new Select Committee on Craft Brewing and Distilling, Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, wants to tackle the regulatory barriers he said make it difficult for craft brewers and distillers to operate in the state.

As one example, he said he supports changing the law so that California’s distillers of vodka, whiskey and other spirits can sell their products directly to consumers the same way that breweries and wineries do.

“We don’t want this success limited by decades-old laws that are not effective any longer,” said Levine, whose district includes the southern portion of Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Marin County. “It’s important for us to review them.”

Other areas Levine expects to tackle are a prohibition on beer tastings at farmer’s markets and a slew of business regulations that industry representatives say can delay brewery and distillery openings by months.

“We’re just looking for where we can get some relief from red tape,” said Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins last week granted Levine’s request to form the select committee. Other lawmakers have yet to be assigned to the group, which is designed to research issues and not vote on bills.

The committee’s formation reflects explosive growth in the craft brewing and distilling industries. There are now 20 craft brewers in Sonoma County, almost double the number from 2011. A report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board found that the economic impact of craft brewing in 2012 was $123 million, creating almost 500 jobs and another 179 positions indirectly.

Nationwide, production of craft beer jumped 18 percent during the first six months of 2014 and a new brewery opens every 16 hours in the United States, according to the Brewers Association, the trade group that represents craft brewers.

Brian Hunt, the owner and brew master at Moonlight Brewing in Santa Rosa, said when he graduated from UC Davis in 1980 there were less than 50 brewing companies nationwide and that the majority of them were corporate-owned titans. Today, California has 480 craft breweries, more than any other state.

“Representation is really important when you have something that’s changed so dramatically, and continues to change so dramatically,” Hunt said. “It’s not just major corporations running the show anymore.”

Levine, who succeeded in getting a law passed that allows wine tastings at farmer’s markets, is likely to attempt the same with beer. He also expressed support for taking a fresh look at Prohibition-era laws governing California’s alcohol industry as a boost to distillers. The state has about 70 distilleries employing more than 500 people.

California’s rules were spawned nearly 80 years ago when the state’s lawmakers created “fair trade laws” governing alcohol production and sales. So-called “tied-house” rules were meant to level the playing field and head off a monopoly by separating the liquor trade into three groups — producers, wholesalers and retailers. But critics say the rules are outdated and do not benefit everyone the same.

“As more and more consumers interact with distilleries, people are starting to ask why they aren’t allowed to buy products from the distillery,” said Timo Marshall, co-proprietor with his wife, Ashby, of Sebastopol’s Spirit Works Distillery.

Marshall is president of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild, which spearheaded a successful effort to legalize tastings at California distilleries. Under the law, which took effect in January 2014, the facilities can offer tastings limited to six per customer and capped at a quarter of an ounce per sample pour for a fee.

However, the original bill was watered down to exclude a provision that would have allowed distilleries to sell products directly to consumers.

Levine said his goal with the new committee isn’t to promote consumption of alcohol.

“This is not a committee about drinking,” he said. “It’s recognizing an area of the economy that is thriving. Small businesses are growing and we want to make sure we foster an environment where they can continue to be successful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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