Written by Edward Smith
Discussions of the future of Visalia’s burgeoning microbrewery district have come to a head as the Visalia Planning Commission passed a zoning amendment allowing underage people in brewery tasting rooms.
On Monday, the commission, under direction of the Visalia City Council, approved Resolution 2018-25, which outlines the rules by which breweries can allow underage children into their tasting rooms.
The proposed plan, which will now go before the council Aug. 6, came about after an 18-month study of food and beverage rules in the downtown area. One of the concerns raised by Visalia police was about children being allowed near alcohol.
While at first glance, children around beer and alcohol may seem counter-intuitive, the council recognized that some of these tasting rooms were marketing themselves as family-friendly and some in the community embraced these places. One of those businesses that opened in July of last year is Barrelhouse Brewing Co.
Barrelhouse serves its own beer and has games for children so parents can enjoy a drink without having to get a babysitter.
“We’re not condoning underage kids coming here,” said Matt Nation, taproom manager for Barrelhouse Brewing. “If mom and dad can’t get a sitter, they won’t be turned away because they want a craft beer at Barrelhouse.”
On top of the games, the brewery also hosts open mic nights with Grace Note Music Studio, which features musicians of all ages.
The tasting room has become a sort of community center, said Gail Zurek, president of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, who has been actively working with city staff on rules for the overlay district, which is the area the city has relaxed requirements for breweries to locate.
Currently, many alcohol purveyors operate under a License 23 allowance from the Alcoholic Beverage Control, which dictates that tasting rooms can only serve their own brews. License 23 makes it a much easier way for craft brewers to meet ABC guidelines as well as city guidelines.
One of the unexpected provisions of License 23 is that it allows underage people to be in tasting rooms.
So, city council directed the planning commission to conduct a study with two guidelines, according to Paul Scheibel, principal planner with the city of Visalia. The first was to come up with rules about how microbreweries should do to qualify as “family-friendly.”
The planning commission came up with the following rules:
—Underage patrons shall not remain upon the establishment premises after 10 p.m. nightly.
—Minor patrons shall be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian at all times.
—Underage patrons shall not sit at the bar or serving counter areas of the establishment.
—The establishment shall provide games, activities, non-alcoholic beverages and snack foods suitable to all ages.
—The floor area devoted to games and activities shall be a minimum of 20 percent of the public area of the establishment.
The second was to create a conditional use permit that would give the city council the ability to look more in-depth at businesses wanting to allow children into tasting rooms, according to Scheibel.
The chamber, however, has taken the position that a CUP would discourage business.
The process can take up to 40 days after the application is filled out. For businesses going into existing buildings that don’t need environmental assessments, the filing fee is about $1,297, according to Scheibel.
“This creates unnecessary hurdles and costs for businesses,” Zurek said.
The chamber felt that the rules could simply be written into the ordinance and that most breweries already have similar rules written into their business model.
“We all agree,” said Zurek. “It’s just the mechanism by which we achieve these goals.”
Requiring a CUP would incur unintended consequences, Zurek said. For a district still in its infancy, those obstacles can send potential brewers to other cities like Exeter or Tulare.
“There has been a lot of tire kicking,” Zurek said.
One business recently decided to go to Hanford, said Zurek. And breweries like being located next to other breweries because it creates a destination.
“I don’t feel competition is how people should look at it,” said Nation with Barrelhouse Brewing. “People don’t like staying stagnant. They like innovation. They’re not just going to one place, they want different places.”
Back in September, the planning commission approved the conditional use permit from Vise Brewing Company, Inc., which would be about a quarter mile outside the district, according to the Sun Gazette.
The brewing company originally intended to have games throughout its tasting room and wanted to make a “family-friendly location, enjoyable for those of all ages,” according to the article.
The final decision was to allow underage people into Vise Brewing Company’s tasting room.
The other problem is the amendment might discourage breweries from even allowing underage people at all, which would turn the area into a drinking district, Zurek fears.
“When you go to Barrelhouse, you can see families having fun and drinking,” Zurek said.
Businesses can bypass the permit by simply requiring all patrons be 21 and over, which might deter families and younger professionals with children.
“It creates energy and it’s a place for our young professionals to hang out,” Zurek said. “The microbrew is that place.”