By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – The City Council’s creation of a micro brewery overlay district was applauded as an innovative way to revitalize east Main Street by allowing local breweries to open without the expense of starting a restaurant. Supporters said it would create a social hub for those more interested in sampling than getting smashed, make Visalia a foodie tourism destination and attract young professionals to the area.
The overlay district also attracted an even younger crowd of people under the age of 21 into craft beer businesses, something Mayor Warren Gubler said he had not considered when forming the overlay district in 2016.
A year and a half later, Lt. Brent Abbot said the Visalia Police Department had concerns with businesses like Barrelhouse which allow people under the age of 21 inside the business with or without a parent. Barrelhouse is the only business currently operating under a type 23 alcohol license. Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), the licensing agency for alcohol permits, defines type 23 as a non-retail, non-restaurant micro brewery or brew pub that produces less than 60,000 barrels of beer per year for draft purchases at a taproom and produces bottles for sale by retailers. The primary difference between this and other beer licenses is that there is no age restriction on those allowed into the business.
He went so far as to say that students at Mt. Whitney and Redwood could come to Barrelhouse for lunch on a school day without the knowledge of their parents. He also said Barrelhouse offers beer with a higher percentage of alcohol, listed as alcohol by volume or ABV. Barrelhouse beers range in ABV from 5.2% to 11.4% compared with typical domestic beers (Budweiser, Coors, Miller) which range from 4.2% to 5%.
Abbott said Barrelhouse had more in common with bars, such as the Green Olive, Pump House and Republik than it did with other craft breweries, such as Sequoia Brewing Company and Brewbakers, because it does not offer food and patrons go there with the “main purpose is to consume alcohol and socialize.”
“Barrelhouse may provide food but it is not a requirement,” Abbott said.
Jason Carvalho, co-founder of Barrelhouse in Paso Robles, said he was offended by the comment that Barrelhouse was more of a bar than a brewery. He said Barrelhouse does not serve any hard alcohol, which has a much higher ABV than any beer brewed or served at Barrelhouse. He said not only has Barrelhouse never been cited for serving minors and have received letters of support from law enforcement agencies in Paso Robles thanking them for their community service.
“They have more problems at the Starbucks in Paso Robles than Barrelhouse,” Carvalho said. “Barrelhouse Brewery is a family friendly establishment. We have operated with integrity and we will continue to do so.”
In addition to being a model brewery, Carvalho said Barrelhouse has become a gathering place for community events and have plans to use their venue as a place where local, underage bands can come and play their music. His manager said about 20% of their sales are non alcoholic drinks, such as soda, because so many patrons bring their children with them to Barrelhouse. Carvalho also questioned why other family friendly establishments were allowed to serve beer while also allowing minors such as Chuck E. Cheese and Adventure Park.
Sam Logan, who formerly served as a Visalia Planning Commissioner, said he didn’t understand why someone would take children to a place where they serve alcohol but Barrelhouse was hardly the first example. He pointed out that city-owned facilities such Rawhide Stadium, Plaza Park Raceway and the Valley Oaks Golf Course all served alcohol and allowed people under the age of 21.
“Every pizza place in town serves beer and they are all considered family places,” Logan said. “Parents should be responsible for their own children. I don’t know that you need to regulate this. Let the parents do that.”
Chief Jason Salazar tempered the conversation by saying that Barrelhouse was a bad example of a type 23 license that was causing problems. He pointed out that Barrelhouse was the first type 23 ABC licensed establishment in Visalia and that it was something new for officers to enforce. He reminded the council that Barrelhouse did a great job of providing things were not required as part of their alcohol license and could be a model for future business; however, a good ordinance regulating new businesses would ensure future type 23 taprooms would have to follow their example.
“No one wants a single business to come in and do it poorly, become a nuisance and have an impact on everyone,” Salazar said. “This is not against Barrelhouse, but there will be more that come.”
Stephanie Dyer, one of the owners of Brewbakers, said Barrelhouse’s model of being a family friendly brewer is what allows them to draw in more customers and be successful. She said Brewbakers is also hoping to open a taproom in the overlay district where they can welcome in families and expand their business as well.
“We’ve been open 19 years and haven’t served anyone under 21,” she said. “Why should we be penalized for that down the line?”
Gail Zurek, executive director of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, said taprooms like Barrelhouse are exactly the type of “community asset” that young professionals look for when they move for their careers. Zurek said the City Council created the micro brewery district to create a tourist destination in a dying portion of downtown and Barrelhouse is the exact type of business they were hoping to attract.
“Barrelhouse is a great chamber member and a great community member,” she said. “Our hope is to have three or four more Barrelhouses in our community.”
City Planner Paul Bernal reminded the Council that even if they were to amend the overlay district to correct the problem in the future, Barrelhouse would be grandfathered in under its current license.
Vice Mayor Bob Link said he wasn’t interested in setting an age limit because he wasn’t interested in government playing the role of parent.
“When I owned my business I got really tired of the government telling me what I could and could not do,” Link said. “It’s not a healthy environment to get into. As long as the microbrewery has a family-friendly environment that’s fine with me.”
Mayor Warren Gubler said Barrelhouse should be complemented for the environment they have created at their microbrewery, but questioned whether future businesses allowed to operate under the same type of license would be as responsible.
Nelson motioned to have staff revise the overlay district to require new taprooms in the overlay district to provide non-alcoholic drinks, such as juice or soda, tabletop games and game areas, such as corn hole, and provide a detailed plan for verifying the age of people entering the business. The motion passed 4-1 with Councilmember Greg Collins voting no.
Earlier in the meeting, Collins said he agreed with the age requirement because the primary reason for going to a taproom is to drink alcohol, as opposed to other family friendly establishments where beer is served but is not the primary attraction.
“If they are only there to sell craft beer, I don’t see why anyone under 21 should be permitted,” Collins said.