You'll Be Seeing Craft Beer at California Farmers Markets Next Year

California's farmers markets are about to become a little more relaxed.

Ahh, summer at the farmers market. Is there anything as satisfying as feeling up fresh fruit with a buzz on?

California beer enthusiasts will finally have that opportunity beginning next year with legislation signed earlier this week by Gov. Jerry Brown, allowing the state's craft beer brewers to offer samples of their wares during tastings at farmers markets throughout the state. Similar legislation allowing the same opportunities for wine producers was signed last year.

Introduced by state Assemblyman Marc Levine (San Rafael-D), AB 744 isn't all Skittles and beer, however. As with all matters alcoholic, there are rules.

[jump] Customers will be limited to a total of eight ounces worth of servings per event, and the tasting events themselves must be cordoned off from the rest of the market with ropes, banners, or walls. And, perhaps disappointingly so, only one brewer may offer what the legislation refers to as an “instructional tasting event” at each market, at a time. (And no wandering about the market with an open container, you!)

Legislation passed last year allowed wineries to offer samples but beer brewers were shut out. Prior to that, even the wineries couldn't give out samples, which meant they were trying to promote products their potential customers had to buy on faith, even as people hawkers move through the crowds, luring people with slices peaches or fragments of artisanal chocolate.

“People were less likely to buy wines they couldn't taste,” said Greg Pursley, a regional manager for Pacific Coast Farmers Markets and “the guy who oversees the alcohol.” Pacific Coast oversees more than 60 farmers markets throughout the Bay Area, including 10 in San Francisco.

For Pursley's organization, whose San Francisco farmers markets include Castro, Fillmore, and Divisadero, as well as the various markets sponsored by Kaiser Medical, the real issue is maintaining control at each of whichever individual markets decide to allow brewers to participate. Pursley doesn't see beer tasting happening at the Kaiser-sponsored markets, for example, and probably not during markets featuring kids' events but he's already had inquiries about the farmers markets in Pleasanton, Livermore, and San Leandro, he said.

Instrumental in all this was the California Craft Beer Association, which worked with Assemblyman Levine and Alcohol Beverage Control in pulling the legislation together. One of those key restrictions was the limit of one brewery per market at a time.

“It wasn't intended to be a beer festival,” said Tom McCormick, executive director of Sacramento-based CCBA, and he's comfortable with the numerous restrictions that shaped the legislation. “As part of that overall discussion, the markets and ABC wanted to put pretty tight constraints on it,” he said. “That wasn't an issue with us. It's a little delicate to be serving beer at a farmers market, and we felt it was an appropriate limitation.”

The most important thing was simply getting the beer into the farmers markets.

“Breweries really fit the profile of what farmers markets are,” said McCormick. “Beer is an agricultural product. It fits into the profile that farmers markets are appealing to.”

Still, the legislation won't come into effect until next year, meaning beer enthusiasts are going to have wait a while to get their buzz on while shopping for locally sourced Rocambole garlic and Dapple Fire pluots. And while Greg Pursley will probably be working with local brewers in at least a few of his locations, the arrival of craft beer at the Ferry Plaza farmers market may take a bit longer. The Ferry Plaza is at capacity right now, said Brie Mazurek, communications manager for Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which oversees the popular market there. On the other hand, hard cider made by local apple growers has already been showing up at the market. Unlike beer, which requires hops and wheat which is typically grown outside California, the apples for her market's hard cider comes from local apple producers.

Mazurek's concerns make her an outlier in beer circles, however. Members of the San Francisco Brewers Guild “are thrilled for the changes that are coming,” said Joanne Marino, SFBG's new executive director.

“I think what s really important is that brewers haven't been able to share their product,” she said. “It's part of the evolution of craft beer, getting back to its roots. People want to understand their food and where it comes from. Craft brewing has traditionally been all about community and knowing your brewer.“

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