Singles barred: How Sacramento banned craft beer

City’s 18-year-old law still prohibits sale of ‘singles’ in certain neighborhoods

The city banned the sale of single brews in areas already laden with liquor stores in 1996—but an emerging craft-beer industry has lawmakers and law-enforcement rethinking the approach.

The city banned the sale of single brews in areas already laden with liquor stores in 1996—but an emerging craft-beer industry has lawmakers and law-enforcement rethinking the approach.

illustration by Hayley Doshay

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It’s Sacramento Beer Week 2014—but a hangover from the 1990s still bans the sale of single bottles of craft beer in the city.

This unique-to-Sacramento policy dates back to 1996, when the city council wanted two things when it came to booze in the city: more control over liquor-license applications; and increased tools to combat blight and crime due to drunks, loitering and littering.

Council approved a new liquor-license ordinance in October of that year. But there was an unexpected casualty: single bottles of craft beer.

Since, there’s been debate over whether to allow “singles” to be sold in areas like the central city. City leaders have been wary to make changes.

But now, former council members who voted for the ban—and even city police—are recognizing that the antiquated law probably needs tweaking.

Before 1996, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which oversees liquor licenses in the state, had a moratorium on certain liquor permits because it considered many of this city’s neighborhoods “over-concentrated” with booze establishments. This included Midtown and downtown.

According to a September 1996 news story by Tony Bizjak in The Sacramento Bee, “city officials lobbied the state for the right to a local say on liquor license applications in neighborhoods already laden with liquor stores.” The Legislature passed a new law granting this power to local governments in 1994.

Two years later, the city was ready to change its laws. Under its new plan, “the Police Department would say yes or no to [liquor license] applicants based on a long list of City Council guidelines,” Bizjak wrote. Some of these rules addressed hours of operation and types of booze that could be sold. But one of the conditions restricted craft brew:

“Sales of beer and malt beverages shall be in quantities of not less than a six pack.”

Back then, the modern craft-beer industry literally did not exist. One of today’s largest craft breweries, Stone Brewing Co. near San Diego, had just opened in 1996. Most beer was sold in six-packs. The majority of single bottles were low-cost 40-ouncers, or “forties,” that city leaders attributed to urban blight and crime.

Deborah Ortiz, councilwoman at the time representing Oak Park, is often erroneously credited with leading the charge to ban craft-beer singles. This isn’t accurate: She ultimately voted for the ordinance, yes, but her motivation was to have more say over booze in her district.

Minutes from a September 3, 1996, council meeting note that “Ortiz stressed that it was important to have local control on this issue. … She said this was the City’s opportunity to tell ABC what it wanted in its neighborhoods.” There are no comments on the record about her ambition to ban beer.

In fact, her intent was to not prohibit certain high-end beer or wine shops. At a meeting on October 22, 1996, she asked staff whether the new rules would still allow for the opening of “a gourmet wine shop” or related business. Staff assured her yes.

Former associate city planner Dawn Holm also told the Bee in a story on that same day that the city wants “the option … of a gourmet wine shop. [But] a gourmet wine shop will have the same license as a liquor store,” and the ABC wasn’t granting any of those before the city changed its rules.

It raises the question: If the council didn’t intend to ban wine shops, are high-end craft-beer bottle shops the accidental victims of this 18-year-old ordinance? Would the council of 1996, if it could see the beer industry of today, still ban the sale of singles?

Ortiz wouldn’t go so far as to say the ordinance needs to be repealed; she says it’s no longer her place to make those decisions. But she did acknowledge to SN&R last week that “it’s a legitimate thing to say that was then and this is now,” and that today’s public-safety issues aren’t what they were in 1996.

“Today’s reality … it’s a very different time and a very different place.”

It’s also a different craft-beer world. Brew is now a $4 billion-plus industry in California, according to the California Craft Brewers Association, and a majority of the modern craft brew is sold as singles at high-end retail outlets such as City Beer Store in San Francisco or Ol Beercafe & Bottle Shop in Walnut Creek.

Even most of the region’s 30-plus breweries sell their beer in 22-ounce bottles, which are called bombers. These typically cost more than a traditional 40-ounce beer and attract a more discerning beer drinker.

In 1996, city leaders deliberated for weeks on the new booze policy and eventually passed it 9-0 on October 22. Then-Councilman Darrell Steinberg and Steve Cohn, who remain local elected officials to this day, voted in favor.

Councilman Cohn has told SN&R in the past that a “refined approach” is probably needed to address the city’s singles rule.

Other current city leaders, including central city Councilman Steve Hansen, have shared with SN&R concerns over lifting the singles ban. They worry about public safety and also don’t want to have to create policy that differentiates between cheap beer and costlier craft beer.

The Sacramento Police Department—which actually makes decisions on these licenses—is open to a new approach.

“We’re trying to find the best way to deal with the sale of these craft beers, which are oftentimes sold in singles, and, typically, they are a little bit more expensive,” Officer Doug Morse, police spokesman, said last week.

So far, police have given special waivers to a handful of local businesses, such as the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and the proposed new BevMo! store in Midtown, to sell two-packs of beer, or “doubles.” The ordinance has yet to be amended to allow such exceptions, even though small changes were made as recently as April 2013. Morse says the department is trying to adapt to these “modern times.”

But he also said its No. 1 priority is still public safety. “But if the sales of singles in a certain area is not going to have the propensity to cause blight, then it’s no longer a public-safety issue.”