Fear the beer: Why you can’t buy single specialty beers in Sacramento’s central city
Sacramento’s growing craft-brew movement collides head-on with a city ‘wino law’ that banned the world’s best beers
In Midtown or downtown, you can buy a bottle of wine, a liter of rum—or even an ounce of marijuana—and bring it home for personal use. Yet, in this very same neighborhood, it’s illegal to buy a single bottle of one of the world’s finest beers, such as Pliny the Elder, to take home for dinner.
This unique-to-Sacramento law surprised local restaurateur Derar Zawaydeh, who this past summer had planned to turn his downtown frozen-yogurt spot on the R Street Corridor into a specialty-beer shop. The idea was, he explained, a perfect confluence of passion and business: He was interested in California and Belgian beers, and a growing movement of brew enthusiasts was already sipping high-end suds at his popular Burgers and Brew restaurant on the same block.
So Zawaydeh, who employs dozens of people at his six area restaurants, started all the paperwork and even paid some fees. That is, until the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control broke the news.
This beer law, which the city council passed in the mid-’90s, is enforced only in “the grid”—or from Front Street to Alhambra Boulevard, B Street to Broadway. Zawaydeh was not granted an exemption, so he cut his losses and instead, this week, finally expanded his Burgers and Brew restaurant into the neighboring space.
“I personally was really, really disappointed,” he told SN&R, adding that, when it comes to the law, “there should be common sense prevailing.”
By common sense, Zawaydeh means allowing a burgeoning craft-beer movement to take root in the central city. And in the form of bottle shops, which don’t sell cheap 40-ounce beers but instead single 22-ounce and 750-milliliter beers at price points comparable to wine. These craft beers aren’t available in six-packs, and they come from right here in Sacramento’s backyard and as far away as Buggenhout, Belgium. And it’s a booming industry, according to the U.S. Brewers Association: Overall beer sales flatlined this past year, but craft-beer sales were up 15 percent in the first half of 2011.
But 16 years ago, when the city council was looking at Midtown’s and downtown’s liquor stores, the craft-beer industry was practically nonexistent, save for a few ground-floor connoisseurs. What did exist, however, was a street-drinking problem, at least according to then-Mayor Joe Serna, who along with other council members was worried about alcohol abuse in Midtown and downtown.
Enter then-Councilwoman Deborah Ortiz, who crafted what’s now called the “single serve ordinance.” This new law, which the council passed unanimously, placed unique restrictions on the sale of malt liquor, spirits and wine and also prohibited the sale of beer “in quantities of not less than a six-pack.” Only a handful of existing liquor stores were grandfathered in and allowed to retail singles.
Today, however, the ordinance has created what Councilman Steve Cohn called “unintended consequences.” He explained to SN&R that although he, too, voted for the law, he realizes now that a “refined approach” is probably needed. This could potentially include the city taking a new look at problematic liquor stores, or also the possibility of special exemption licenses to the single-serve ordinance.
But, he added, any immediate change is unlikely. “The problem is,” he explained, “is that it’s hard to write a regulation that says ‘OK’ on the nice upscale bottle shops and ‘no’ on the liquor store that brings in winos and troublemakers.”
This argument parallels discussions between the city council and local businesses on whether to allow similarly trendy gourmet food trucks to operate under special rules but not so-called “roach coach” trucks. But a huge difference, the councilman pointed out, is alcohol; there isn’t always tremendous political will to relax booze laws.
Meanwhile, new craft-beer bottle shops continue to pop up on the city’s periphery. And more and more so-called “hop-heads” are speaking out against what they call an outdated rule.
Gary Sleppy has poured drafts and sold bottles out of his East Sacramento cafe, The Shack, going on seven years. Currently, he has more than 100 bottles on sale and says the craft-beer scene continues to “rise exponentially every year.”
“Sacramento has always been a beer town,” he said. “And Sacramento’s growth curve has been exponential, more than San Francisco.” This despite the single-serve ordinance, which Sleppy calls an “antiquated law for a different time.”
Restaurateur and beer aficionado Rob Archie agrees. This past summer, he opened a bottle shop next to his Pangea Two Brews Cafe in Curtis Park, just off the grid south of Broadway, and says the shop is more of a community center than a retail store.
“And that’s what I wanted it to be,” added Archie, who employs 10 people and sells more than 90 different bottled beers. “It changes into a tasting room, it’s cooler in here, it’s a darker atmosphere—and when you start popping bottles, everybody has an opinion.”
Zawaydeh isn’t the only local businessperson to have been stifled by the single-serve ordinance. Even the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, which is located inside the central city but right on the border, has wanted to sell craft beers by the bottle to no avail.
“Most specialty beers that people want to buy now come in a single bottle,” explained employee and wine and beer buyer Kevin Corcoran. “If we were [located] across the street, we would be fine,” and able to sell single beers, he remarked.
Many cite the co-op’s circumstance to point out how arbitrary and irrelevant the single-serve law has become. But others, such as Sacramento Beer Week founder Dan Scott, sees it as innately flawed.
“People can still buy little bottles of vodka, but they can’t buy a beer?” he asked. “How does that help public safety?”
Meanwhile, beer advocates and enthusiasts such as Zawaydeh will keep pouring—and drinking—great beers.
“I’m still really interested in opening a shop, no question,” he said. “I think the demand for Belgian beer in general is going up. I’d like to think that it’s a huge demand, in fact, and that we are on our way with craft beers.”