Imagine, if you will, this scene: A brewer is toiling away on a rich, high gravity stout when suddenly inspiration strikes. She proceeds to dump absurd amounts of coffee beans into the mix, hoping to imbue those roasty and fruity tones into the brew. It smells amazing! In fact, she’s so distracted by the heavenly aromas wafting about that she scarcely notices the jackbooted ABC agents crashing through the brewery door with guns drawn. They storm toward her, barking to set down Mostra bag and step away from the tank. Why, you might ask? Because in this shadow dimension the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) does not exist and coffee stouts are now illegal.
(The Twilight Zone theme song should probably auto-play here whenever print media finally has the technological means to do so.)
As preposterous as that scenario sounds, there is a sliver of reality to it. Back in 2011, Senate Bill 39 (Padilla) was introduced to outlaw alcoholic beverages adding caffeine as a separate ingredient. Its intention was to curtail things like Four Loko, which was basically a way of making PCP commercially available in eight fun, fruity flavors. That seems like a sensible enough legislative agenda until you consider that any loose verbiage in such a law could have easily impacted the burgeoning pastry stout culture. This is where the ever-vigilant CCBA came in.
The CCBA is a state-wide trade organization, advocating for the legislative needs of the 600+ dues-paying breweries they currently represent. This can take many forms, but their primary activity is tracking any ongoing legislation that could potentially impact the craft brewing industry in the short or long term. Whether a bill requires opposition, support, or a bit of protective tweaking, they serve as a megaphone for the breweries it will impact.
A considerable volume of this work is seeking ways to empower the industry. As illustrated earlier, this can be as simple as advocating for the types of ingredients brewers are allowed to add (or when in the brewing process they are permitted to add them), but often it’s contending with actual business practices.
In the 2015 legislative session CCBA championed Assembly Bill (AB) 893 (Stone) as it would eliminate the requirement by the ABC to receive their approval prior to releasing a new beer label, favoring a basic registration process instead. This took a process that could often require days to weeks to complete, and trimmed it down to mere minutes.
That likely won’t excite anyone beyond brewery owners at first blush, but consider the impact that one-off can releases have had on beer culture over the last few years and how this change has facilitated them. So, yes, CCBA is at least partly to blame for the unshakeable grip that FOMO has on your soul. Their heart was in the right place, I suppose.
Though the CCBA sponsors an average of three to five bills in every annual legislative session, they more frequently drive to maintain a defensive posture. The State Capitol is understandably lousy with lobbyists, but the prominence is especially profound around the Governmental Organizational Committee. Its jurisdiction includes tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and basically anything fun. This is where parties like Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, large distributors, and other large corporate interests go to share PAC funds (along with all their 100% altruistic ideas on how to “improve” beer laws). Often it’s the bills that never see the light of day where CCBA has been the most engaged.
Existing tied-house laws (i.e. state laws created to ensure retail outlets are not financially incentivized by alcohol manufacturers to either overserve customers or gain exclusivity over sales channels) do their part to keep egregious actions at bay, but there’s always plenty of devils lurking about in the details. For example, AB 711 (Low) created an exception to allow beer manufacturers to provide free or discounted rides home to consumers. Unless you’re a staunch advocate for the emotional growth that accompanies a DUI conviction, most would say the offer sounds downright neighborly. The rub is that it makes it totally legal to exclusively ferry from manufacturer-selected establishments, not to mention it’s a service that smaller businesses could ill afford to provide. Legally hinky incentive, meet customer.
In the face of such challenges, the CCBA often needs a bit more muscle behind its hustle. A megaphone only has utility when there’s someone sufficiently motivated to yell into it, after all. It happens that there’s few better bullies for that pulpit than our own San Diego Brewers Guild (SDBG).
To the extent that the SDBG is known to the general public at all, it’s most likely in its association with prominent festivals and the annual San Diego Beer Week. But for CCBA the guild is a conduit to a tremendous network of small business owners and concerned industry professionals. It can be a grassroots powerhouse when it needs to be. I tend to liken it to awakening Godzilla to battle various Kaiju, but feel free to supply your own less dorky comparison.
Summoning a deluge of concerned emails and phone calls to members of the Governmental Organizational Committee can certainly influence happenings, but it is something of a blunt tool. The long-term wins manifest when individuals are able to personalize the industry (along with reminding of the 54,000 jobs it provides to constituents). That is why SDBG President (and Burgeon Beer Co-Owner/President) Matthew Zirpolo participated in CCBA’s annual Day at the Capitol, where he, among nearly 40 other brewery owners, met with more than 60 legislators to discuss their pressing issues.
Not only do these meetings forge new allies in the capitol, Zirpolo noted ripple effects from the effort as well. “The senator that I met with actually emailed me not too long afterwards about my opinion on one of the bills that was coming up,” said Zirpolo. “They took what I had to say to heart.”
While it was comedically expeditious to portray the SDBG as CCBA’s Brute Squad, the reality is the CCBA is likewise a tremendous resource for the guild. Given CCBA’s exposure to issues that crop up across the entire state, they have, in a manner of speaking, seen it all. Maintaining open lines of communication helps San Diego avoid pitfalls other regions have fallen victim to, or provides new cautionary tales for other California breweries. This is why SDBG Executive Director Paige McWey Acers strives to keep updates from Sacramento top of mind for the guild. “They’re aware of what the CCBA is doing… and how they can participate in protecting their livelihood and their business,” said McWey Acers.
I’ll admit that the nascent fanfic author in me relishes conceptualizing a Breaking Bad-adjacent reality where Modern Times Beer becomes a ruthless kingpin in the illicit coffee stout trade. I could wring three to four seasons out of that premise, easy. Still, back in here in the real world, I am comforted to know the CCBA and SDBG are keeping that dystopian future and others like it at bay.