Mark McDermott

LA County vs. craft beer: A call for recognition

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Strand Brewing’s 10,000 square foot brewery, with its 20-foot high ceilings in Torrance is ideal for social distancing customers, but Los Angeles County is not allowing breweries to serve customers. Photo by JP Cordero

 

Strand Brewing founder Joel Elliott fought the Los Angeles County Health Department a decade ago to legalize breweries. Now he’s fighting the County to earn recognition for breweries as being distinct from bars or restaurants. Photo by JP Cordero

by Joel Elliott 

 

Los Angeles County craft beer will not die from COVID-19. But a second, more deadly identity crisis has recently set in, and it has the capacity to destroy the industry, completely.

It is impossible to explain this alarming statement without first taking a step back.

When we started building the Strand Brewing Company in the fall of 2008 there were five production breweries operating in the Los Angeles area, but only if you included the Budweiser plant in the valley and the Miller plant out in Baldwin Park.

With numbers like that and with the exception of a handful of fiercely independent rogue champions of the industry (like my friend Steve Roberts, who is known to have driven hundreds of miles up and down the coast handpicking kegs to serve at his restaurant) it is not unfair to say that Los Angeles was a craft beer wasteland.

The movement that had taken root in Northern California in the ‘80s had leapfrogged LA without anybody noticing and began to really explode in San Diego in the mid ‘90s, where the boundaries of what could be done with beer were being pushed to the limit. Stone Brewing almost single handedly put the intentionally out-of-balance, overly-hoppy West Coast IPA style into the common vernacular with their no holds barred “You’re Not Worthy” rock-n-roll marketing campaign. The exciting, new approach caught on with a cult-like ferocity and San Diego craft beer was on the cutting edge for no fewer than two decades.

Despite its relative proximity to the new epicenter of creative American beer culture, Los Angeles remained uninfluenced. “It’s a fickle market,” they would say. “A craft brewery could never survive in LA.” Back then, beers from San Diego and Northern California were representing the local contingent in the grocery aisles. Sierra Nevada and Stone were the de facto LA breweries. That’s how bad it really was.

Enter Jeff, Rich and myself, a trio of nimrods who right in the middle of the devastation that was the ’08 financial collapse believed this would be a good time to borrow a bunch of money to build a brewery, in a tiny industrial warehouse, in a market that was considered incapable of supporting one. 

Nobody in LA even knew what a craft brewery was. 

“You mean like Budweiser?!” 

Yeah, kind of like that. But smaller.

We broke ground with only $35,000 in hand of what would ultimately be a total startup cost of just under $125,000. The experts on the subject all said it couldn’t be done for less than $1million. People said we were crazy and one of the other three brewers in LA looked me square in the eye and told me that we would fail because our business model was f**ked.  (He went out of business a couple years later)

As we began construction, we discovered the Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health, more commonly known as “The Health Department,” a.k.a. “Health,” a.k.a. [insert four letter words here] would aggressively assert its self-proclaimed authority to approve, license and inspect us as wholesale food manufacturers.

Plans were repeatedly inspected, corrected and re-inspected. The industry standard brewing equipment we had purchased was incapable of being approved by the department because it did not bear the National Sanitation Foundation sticker of approval for use in food production. Never mind that this same equipment was being used the world over and had been for decades, without issue.

Our protests against this ridiculousness were met with threats of hefty fines and permanent closure. You will comply or you will be persuaded to comply. Either way, you comply.

To be sure, the problem was not some unfounded unwillingness on our part to be regulated by an agency whose purpose it is to ensure that human consumables remain unadulterated. At its core, this is a noble cause and noble causes are to be supported. The problem was that Health was attempting to regulate us not at all as a brewery but instead as a meat packing facility. This is no exaggeration. Early on, the head of the department said to me, “There is no difference between a brewery and a meat packing facility.” Beer was as potentially hazardous as raw steaks and we had to become butchers, so to speak.

We were a square peg and Health was incapable of and/or unwilling to grant us our own identity. Rather than see us for who we were, we were to be crammed into the one, neat, little round hole that was everything Health knew. During that dark time, it was illegal within LA County for a brewery to age beer in wooden barrels. Think about that for a moment. A centuries old practice that in its entire global history has resulted in exactly zero cases of any foodborne illness was illegal in LA County simply because The Health Department’s nearsighted view was that a brewery was exactly the same as a meat packing facility and wood was therefore not a suitable storage vessel.

In my view, Health was shirking its responsibility. Out of laziness or just plain ego (at that time the department was operating under a fully toxic alpha male culture), they were refusing to broaden their own view in order to develop a workable set of parameters under which the goals of our businesses and the goals of their department were aligned. Instead, we were expected to become meat packers; to bow and kiss the ring or be sent to the oubliette where we would either learn Orwellian obedience or be red-taped into oblivion. 

Without debate, beer was raw meat and we were to treat it as such.

When it comes to learning to kiss rings, I am a terrible student. Despite the fact that by this time the brewery was supporting my family and having it shut down would have been, well, sad, I decided to fight. I spent every free moment I had over the next two and a half years doing just that. 

I would read the health code and consult with attorneys. I would read the health code and consult with food experts. I would read the health code and consult with brewers associations. 

The message was always the same. They own you, dude. You have to do whatever they say, man. Learn to play nice because they have you by the balls. Just give up, son.

I almost did give up. By then Health had gotten tired of my constant pushback and subversive Fight Club shenanigans. When I was required to submit permitting paperwork I would sign the documents “under duress.” When I wrote them checks, I would add “Extortion” to the notes field. I was a total pain. I repeatedly told them in writing they had no jurisdiction and they repeatedly wrote back “oh, yes we do!” 

I was bluffing. I wasn’t sure they didn’t have jurisdiction but I knew that beer and steak were not the same so I just kept going. Eventually, I had pushed so hard and for so long that they kicked me up to their team of attorneys just to be rid of me. It was now Joel vs. County Counsel. I was terrified and exhausted. More than anything, I wanted to be done fighting, done beating my head against the wall. In my soul I was done.

A friend suggested I give it one last shot before abandoning. After all, why would they send you to the attorneys if they were so sure they were right? I dove into the code one last time. There was one particular chapter that I had always skipped. It was some esoteric BS something-or-other about general administrative housekeeping matters and I was certain that it contained nothing that could possibly help me. Except that it did.

“A brewery shall not be licensed as a wholesale food manufacturer.”

It turned out that I had been right all along. And yes, when I read that for the first time I did nearly shit my pants. It meant the fight was over and I had won. Their own codified set of regulations prohibited them from doing what they had been doing all along. They actually, literally did not have any jurisdiction. Those 11 words strung together in that specific order granted breweries in LA County their own identity. Breweries were in fact allowed to operate as breweries and not as meat packers. It meant we fell under the jurisdiction not of the county but of the state – and the state understood breweries and brewing. Barrels were not illegal. Our standard equipment was standard. Beer was not raw meat.

And a brewery was a brewery. 

It also meant that the department had illegally required breweries in the county to comply with a whole lot of inapplicable health codes that had cost the nascent industry somewhere in the six figures and collectively wasted dozens of months of our time. 

It is all true. A decade ago, because it refused to recognize breweries for what they are, The Health Department nearly destroyed craft beer in LA before craft beer in LA could even get off the ground. I am the one who prevented it from happening. 

I have never before discussed it publicly. I am not one who desires recognition. I do not seek the spotlight. Those who know me and those who have known my brewery know this to be true. I prefer to exist behind the scenes. 

I would gladly remain there now. But the industry I have worked so hard to build is again in peril and continued silence will do nothing to save it.

In the end, The Health Department admitted defeat and breweries lived happily ever after.

Until last Wednesday.

As it will, history is repeating itself. Breweries in LA County once again face an existential identity crisis unilaterally promulgated by The Health Department. A decade has passed and while the department has experienced a near complete turnover of personnel its approach to the industry has managed to become even more destructive.

In today’s Health Department, breweries are nothing. They don’t just have the wrong identity, they have no identity.

It was an extremely difficult time when breweries were equivalent to meat packers, but at least there was some consistency. The rules were all wrong but the rules were the rules. It made absolutely no sense but at least we knew what façade we were expected to construct.

Now, whenever a new directive is issued it’s not just the rules that change, the entire sport changes. One day we are a bar. The next, a restaurant. After that, both. No kitchen? No problem: contract with a third party food vendor. Wait, no kitchen? That will never do, you need to shut your entire onsite operation. Because, you see, a brewery is a restaurant if it has no kitchen when it contracts with a third party food vendor if it has no kitchen it is a bar and bars are closed but bars with kitchens are still open but breweries…ugh.

It was simpler when a beer was a steak.

It is difficult to run a small business in normal times. It is more difficult to run a small business during this pandemic. It is nearly impossible to run a small business during this pandemic when the rug is repeatedly pulled out from under you. 

Strand Brewing’s 10,000 square foot brewery, with its 20-foot high ceilings in Torrance is ideal for social distancing customers, but Los Angeles County is not allowing breweries to serve customers. Photo by JP Cordero

Here’s the real difference: this time I have no way to fight it. There are no incantations hidden in the code that can make it all go away in a puff of smoke.

Nor do I want to fight it. Nor should there be any magic spell that relieves one group from the massive responsibility we must be expected to take. Like it or not, we are all in this disaster together. Believe in the severity of the virus or not, the devastating impact it is having on economies, local and national is undeniable. This thing can only be solved through a herculean team effort.

To date, our collective solution has been almost entirely reactionary. We focus on what not to do. While reaction is vitally necessary, reaction alone has never solved anything. The defense rarely scores any points. It is time to start looking forward to what we will do.

Breweries cannot participate in a proactive approach to solving this problem if they are constantly regulated into a pattern of chasing their tails. Just when we think we understand our roles, as inappropriately mandated as they may be, everything changes, again. We desperately want to be part of the solution but without an identity, this is impossible. Without an identity, we stand very little chance of even surviving this pandemic as businesses.

Breweries are breweries. The Health Department must be called upon to recognize this but it is beyond my ability to accomplish this alone and there isn’t much time.

You can help by reaching out to the County Supervisor in your district and letting her or him know that Health must work collaboratively with LA breweries if breweries are to survive. Health must transition to a proactive approach if any of us are to survive.

There is no immediate people power vs. Health. Health itself is accustomed to public scrutiny and they have weathered it for decades. The County Board of Supervisors on the other hand has the power to affect change within the department.

The Health Department Director is appointed and answers only to the Board. The Board must be reelected. To them, your voice matters.

 

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