Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is Craft Beer Coming to a Farmer's Market near you?

There's been anticipation and questions in the past few days over the passage of AB 2004, a bill recently signed by California Governor Jerry Brown, which allows any California brewery to apply for a permit to sell packaged beer at farmers markets starting January 1st, 2015.   Online discussions over the new bill show plenty are eager for the chance to pick up their favorite local craft beers along with locally grown fruits and vegetables. People are asking questions like "Will breweries be giving out samples?" or "Could breweries like Coors and Budweiser muscle their way into farmers markets?"

Being intrigued myself, I called Tom McCormick, Executive Director of the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) to discuss the details of AB 2004.  "This bill was at least a couple years in the making, with interest at multiple levels," described McCormick of the new legislation.  "We worked with farmers markets and breweries to get this bill passed and seek parity with the wine industry," alluding to the fact that wineries presently are allowed to sell wine at farmers markets.  It's important to note that AB 2004 allows breweries to sell packaged beer in the form of bottles, cans, or growlers only.  That means you won't be able to walk up to a brewery stand at a farmers market and get a pint on draft or tasting sample. (Actually, it's possible now for breweries to serve  beer on draft at farmers markets, but involves an elaborate process to get a permit to support a non-profit organization and is rarely done.)  Also, AB 2004 allows breweries to sell packaged beer at a farmers market only in the county in which it was brewed or an adjacent county. That means you won't be seeing beer from the likes of Russian River, Sierra Nevada, or Stone Brewing showing up in Bay Area farmer's markets. And yes, since Budweiser is brewed at two breweries in Northern and Southern California, Budweiser could possibly be sold at farmers markets in the areas surrounding these breweries.

While the CCBA has trumpeted this new legislation creating eager anticipation among craft beer drinkers, many craft breweries have responded to this new opportunity with ambivalent shrugs. "Truthfully, there hasn't been much discussion at the brewery regarding the new ruling," was the response from one Bay Area brewery I contacted.  "I haven't really researched the new law yet.  Right now, we don't have any plans to sell at farmers markets", replied another.  Another brewery owner, citing concerns over getting permits, resources required to staff a booth, and the modest volume of typical farmers market sales told me, "it isn't worth the hassle".

In many ways, this response is not surprising.  Despite craft breweries emphasis on "hand crafted beers" and "brewing quality and innovation", craft breweries have a lot in common with Budweiser in that they need to sell in large volume to be profitable.  Of course, not in Budweiser-esque, hundreds of truckloads kind of volumes but even for the smallest craft breweries, their business is a lot about capturing lots of tap handles and plum retail accounts to quickly move product.  The leisurely sales activity at a typical farmers markets makes it hard to justify the use of some of their modest sales resources.  This isn't lost on the CCBA, as Tom McCormick concedes AB 2004 will most likely be used by small or start-up breweries looking for new opportunities and was not intended for larger breweries.  "We didn't want this (AB 2004) to be broadly used to sell a lot of product."

One brewery planning to take advantage of AB 2004 is Bison Brewing, one of the few organic breweries in California.  Daniel Del Grande, owner and brewmaster at Bison first tried to sell beer at farmer's markets back in 2004.  "We were told beer wasn't an agricultural product, so we couldn't get a permit to sell it," he recalls from his earliest attempts.  "The problem with selling at farmers markets is that most people don't want to carry bottles home.  And if two brewers show up at the same market, it ruins things for both of them since they end up splitting the business."  Despite this, Del Grande still plans to move forward.  "My idea is selling growler refills and one-off bottled specialty releases." When I asked about the business justification of being at farmers markets, given the fact that Bison already has higher volume retail outlets at stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts, Del Grande explains, "I look at it as a marketing expense to gain exposure to those who regularly go to farmers markets.  For an organic brewer like me, those are my people."

So if you're expecting to pick up some brews with your organic vegetables at your local farmers market next year, you're likely to be disappointed.   While AB 2004 undeniably is a step forward to give small breweries more opportunities, my take on things is that most likely just a few small and specialty breweries will take advantage of it at scattered farmers markets across California.    

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