Orange County could be barreling toward a craft beer boom thanks to a recent obscure, bureaucratic rule change, local brewers and officials said.
The change, which essentially moves oversight of beer-making facilities from a county agency to the state's department of public health, aims to shrink the unusually stout set of regulatory hurdles that would-be brewers face.
"I think it's really going to open the door to allowing new breweries to start at a reduced cost," said Aaron Barkenhagen, founder and president of Fullerton-based Bootlegger's Brewery, one of the county's most established craft breweries. "It's good for everybody, because now instead of just being us and [Placentia-based beer-maker] the Bruery, now we've got people coming through on buses to all the breweries in North Orange County. It's great exposure."
Prior to the change, Orange County's Department of Environmental Health required breweries to submit to the same expensive construction plan checks and rigorous inspections as, say, a poultry processing plant, even though beer is considered a "low-risk" commodity.
Brewers said that often meant spending tens of thousands of dollars making changes to their facilities, such as installing air curtains or refinishing ceilings and floors, that didn't make sense for making beer.
For breweries that only serve samples of their suds — maybe with crackers, but not with prepared food — the extra requirements were a frustrating barrier to entry.
Meanwhile, in San Diego County there is no local wholesale facility inspection program for brewers to contend with, and in Los Angeles County, an ordinance on the books since the 1960s has largely exempted breweries from county oversight, said Denise Fennessy, Orange County's director of environmental health.
This doesn't mean breweries are exempt from city zoning ordinances or other local laws governing what kind of businesses can be where. Nor does it eliminate Alcohol and Beverage Control requirements. It just eliminates an unnecessary level of regulation for beer.
Because beer is largely produced in a closed system, it has a low risk of creating food-borne illness. As a result, under the state's inspection protocols, such facilities typically only require inspection once every year or two after a brewery is already open, which contrast with Orange County's pre-opening inspections.
"Inspectors before were treating us more as a food processing [facility]," said Deven Dufresne, who's working with his family toward the grand opening of Four Sons Brewing in Huntington Beach. "You can only make beer in a clean environment, otherwise it's not going to taste right."
A gleaming set of tall tanks, some with sheets of plastic still covering them, stood on the bare concrete floor nearby. By summer's end, Dufresne said, they hoped to have a bar set up for tastings, along with places for guests to hang out and play games — all from the confines of a small industrial park.
The change came about after a small batch of Anaheim brewers recently lobbied the city to make the business climate there more beer-friendly. When that effort bore fruit, Anaheim city officials joined with the brewers and approached Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who represents that area of the county.
After several months of discussions, the county's environmental health department announced that brewery regulation would be the state's responsibility.
"We're happy to do what we can to encourage these types of common-sense, business-friendly reforms," Nelson said in a statement.
The state's department of public health inspects about 100 beer manufacturers statewide, a spokesman wrote in an email. The department has seen a gradual increase over the last decade, wrote spokesman Ronald Owens, as craft and microbrews have gotten more and more buzz.
Barkenhagen said that Orange County hasn't quite achieved the level of craft beer renown that San Diego has, but it's getting there — and streamlining regulations helps.
"When I started six years ago, there were only like two breweries in the county," he said. "San Diego was kind of the leader, then Orange County started catching on."
Bootlegger's operates a cavernous, open-air tasting room on the edge of Downtown Fullerton, where ale enthusiasts can sip a pint of crisp Rustic Rye India Pale Ale or down tasting flights, ordering snacks from a food truck parked outside.
Since 2008, he said he's gone from brewing about 170 barrels — about two 15-gallon kegs each — that he delivered to clients personally, to about 10,000 barrels that are distributed around the region.
And as more tourists increasingly ask for area bars' local offerings, the market's growth doesn't appear to be tapping out any time soon.
According to a county list, 13 breweries now fall under the state's purview, many of them not far from Bootlegger's, along with seven more scheduled to open around the county.
Jerry Kolbly, who opened Anaheim's Noble Ale Works a little more than three years ago, was active in the group of brewers pushing for the changes.
He said he's relieved that his decision to leave the Newport Beach Brewing Co. — where customers seemed more interested in "looking for the next blonde and vodka Red Bull" than enjoying a finely tuned ale — is paying off: Noble Ale has about doubled its operations every year it's been open, from about 400 barrels to 3,000 this year.
"We're looking at expanding in the next couple years, tripling our size," he said. "A year and a half ago, I was like, 'Did I make the right choice?' "