As of January 1, a new California law went into effect allowing beer companies to pour tasting samples at certified farmers' markets. Sunday, March 13, Hillcrest Farmers Market became the first in San Diego to put the law into practice, as Hillcrest Brewing Company set up a market stand offering free samples. District 3 city councilman Todd Gloria and Mayor Kevin Faulconer were on hand to mark the occasion with a couple of celebratory sips.
"It's got to be 5 o'clock somewhere," said the mayor, with a tip of his small plastic cup. He called farmers' markets and local craft beer "a great combination."
AB 774 has its limitations. A brewery may pour a maximum of 8 ounces for any customer. The beer must be consumed within a clearly defined area in the stand's vicinity and only, of course, with proof of age. A brewery can't charge for tasters — and may only sell packaged beer — primarily cans or bottles. Growler fills are not permitted, though kegs technically are.
But first, a farmers' market and brewery must both procure a special ABC permit in order to serve tasters. Thus far, only the Hillcrest market and Hillcrest Brewing have done so. Hillcrest Brewing wasn't selling anything at their market stand — merely offering samples and directing customers to its brewpub just a few yards away.
The Hillcrest Business Improvement Association sponsors the Hillcrest market. Representative Megan Gamwell says only one brewery at a time can serve beer, and while Hillcrest brewing will be the only company doing so in the near term, "We hope that we'll have a rotating schedule, maybe pick four breweries in the neighborhood to rotate for a season."
One brewery considering this is Barrio Logan's Border X Brewing. According to co-owner David Favela, the limitations written into the law make it more a marketing venture than distribution channel. In order for it to remain profitable, he speculates, "You've got to sell $250 to $300. You can write it off as a marketing expense…but it's a big commitment to do that every weekend." He adds, "We started bottling just recently, so that makes it feasible. But if it weren't for the bottles we wouldn't do it."
Catt White, manager of Little Italy's Saturday Mercato market, says the limitations also make it unlikely Mercato will pursue a tasting permit in the near future. "If we have a brewery that is very interested we'll discuss it," she says, "but we're not currently planning to pursue tasting…it hasn't seemed necessary."
She says breweries have been selling packaged beer at markets she manages for some time without offering samples. That includes Modern Times Beer Co., and though CEO Jacob McKean welcomes the opportunity to offer tasters, he also suggests the true value is promotional. Not just for the beer, but the market. "It's not a huge revenue generator or anything, but by giving people the opportunity to do more of their shopping at the farmers' market, it's our way of lending support to the concept."