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Breweries in L.A. Are Open Again with Restrictions. Here’s What to Know Before You Go

[dropcap size=big]Y[/dropcap]ou don’t have to make a 24-hour reservation anymore, but expect to buy a “bona fide” meal with that pint if you head to your local brewery this week. 

On October 23, the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health released revised COVID-19 safety protocols that eliminated the “24-hour reservation requirement” that brewery customers had to make online before visiting. This rule did not apply brewpubs, breweries with kitchens and thus already serving what the county deems “bona fide meals,” not prepackaged snacks or foods to go.

Brewpubs comprise the minority of the 95-member Los Angeles County Brewers Guild. The other 70 breweries in L. A. County have played on a vastly uneven playing field for months, since Governor Newsom shut down bars and clubs on June 29. And in the eyes of L. A. County health officials, these 70 breweries were the same as bars and thus prevented from opening for customers’ sit-down business. 

“Breweries are not the same as bars,” said Agustín Ruelas, co-owner of Brewjería Company in Pico Rivera. “We are in a manufacturing facility, and we are manufacturing a food product. We already follow a lot of safety rules in order to run a sanitary facility. We have larger spaces that are well-ventilated.”

“The County kept wanting to portray us as bars, and that’s not what we are,” added Ting Su, co-owner/operator of the venerable Eagle Rock Brewery, L. A.’s first craft brewery that opened in 2009. “There were a lot of disparities of expectations between how restaurants could operate, including those that serve beer, and what breweries were allowed to do.”

It took a big social media campaign to “Save LA Breweries, a week of actions appealing to County Supervisor Janice Hahn, and some strong lobbying by the L. A County Brewers Guild to finally agree to a set of protocols that would even the playing field. 

“The big story is that the L. A. County Brewers Guild jumped into action,” said David Favela, co-owner of Border X Brewing in Bell. “We [breweries] were going to die if not for the grassroots campaign to the Board of Supervisors and get them to understand that if we don’t do something, we’re going to lose breweries in L. A.”  

The lobbying worked. On October 9, the county issued new rules. The 70 breweries that weren’t brewpubs could open, but they had to provide plenty of outdoor space for tables to be six feet or more apart. No beer tastings or drinking pints indoors were allowed.

The county also required breweries to offer “bona fide” meal service because customers had to order food with their beverages. Breweries must have a facility permit to host licensed food vendors and food trucks to serve these bona fide meals, which the County defines as “a usual assortment of foods commonly ordered at various hours of the day that would be considered a legitimate meal.” These do not include snacks, appetizers, or other pre-packaged foods to go.

With revenue down nearly 80 percent across the local craft beer industry, ever-shifting guidelines create uncertainty for small breweries struggling to overcome losses and survive.

Lastly, the county required the thorny “24-hour reservation” rule of all breweries. Customers couldn’t just pop in for a pint. They had to make a reservation online at least 24 hours before showing up to be seated at their favorite brewery. This rule killed many much-needed business for enough of those breweries who did follow the rules and require reservations from customers. We all know people who RSVP but then flake. In the case of these breweries, the no-shows hurt sales. 

Border X’s Favela offered up a common scenario he and other area breweries faced. “Say 50 people make reservations, but only twenty show up. Then if people walk up and want to be seated, they see all these empty tables, but we can’t seat these walk-up customers because they didn’t ‘make a reservation,’ and we have to turn them away. Meantime, we have extra staff working in order to meet these protocols, but we didn’t get the customers we expected.”

With revenue down nearly 80 percent across the local craft beer industry, ever-shifting guidelines create uncertainty for small breweries struggling to overcome losses and survive.

“We’re doing our best to comply,” said Steven Cardenas of Pacific Plate Brewing Company, Monrovia’s first independent craft brewery. “The 24-hour reservation thing was the biggest deterrent for customers. How do we turn people away after being closed for three months? That was hard.”

The county has since removed the 24-hour reservation requirement as part of the new October 23 guidelines and now permits breweries to seat walk-up customers. This change is a much-needed break for L.A.’s owner-operated independent craft breweries that can’t afford to turn away customers. Removing the 24-hour reservation requirement is one less obstacle and one more lifeline for brewery owner-operators like Cardenas, Favela, Ruelas, and Su. 

Los Angeles County was one of the last counties to permit small breweries to open. Prior to October, L.A. craft beer drinkers had to drive to neighboring Kern, Ventura, Riverside, and Orange counties for their brewery fix. 

“The health department created a lot of extra hoops for breweries to jump through,” said Eagle Rock’s Su. “At the same time, we’re grateful to be open. We are also a small, family-owned business struggling like any other small business in California, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Los Angeles County was one of the last counties to permit small breweries to open. Prior to October, L. A. craft beer drinkers had to drive to neighboring Kern, Ventura, Riverside, and Orange counties for their brewery fix. The good news is that locals can finally support their neighborhood breweries throughout L. A. County. While many breweries still recommend making reservations to ensure no waiting for a table, they are no longer required. 

So before heading out to your favorite brewery, check your destination’s Instagram page for up-to-the-minute updates. Wear your mask, maintain physical distance, go hungry so you can enjoy your “bona fide” meal with that pint, and tip your servers well. And if you make a reservation, show up! Prost!

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Listen to Dr. Beer Butch’s October 14 segment on Press Play with Madeleine Brand on KCRW. The author wishes to thank representatives from Ogopogo Brewing, Eagle Rock Brewery, Brewjería Company, Border X Brewing Bell, Pacific Plate Brewing Company, and the Los Angeles County Brewers Guild for their help with this feature.

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