ABC worries kept Ruhstaller away from Beer Week showcase

Ruhstaller beers
Ruhstaller beers Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento Beer Week ended Sunday with the Capitol Beer Fest downtown, bringing the curtain down on 11 days of well-attended events large and small. But many Sacramento beer lovers are left wondering: What happened to Ruhstaller?

One of the most prominent brewers in the area, Ruhstaller was noticeably absent from Feb. 26’s opening night Brewer’s Showcase at the California Automobile Museum. According to a notice sent to its patrons, the beer company pulled out of the all-local event at the last minute because of a possible investigation of Beer Week by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

“On Wednesday we learned of a possible ABC investigation that could affect the two major Sacramento Beer Week events held last night and next Sunday 3/8,” Ruhstaller owners wrote in a newsletter sent Feb. 27. “Ruhstaller has a firm policy of staying clear of any potential ABC investigations, and we regret to inform our supporters that we are not participating in either of these events. ... Ruhstaller fully supports Sacramento Beer Week and the Northern California Brewer’s Guild and is reluctant to make this decision, but at this time it is the right one to make for our company.”

Glynn Phillips, owner of Rubicon Brewing and a former president of the Northern California Brewers Guild, which organizes Beer Week, said last-minute confusion about event sponsorship by two major grocery stores and concern that those sponsorships might violate state alcohol regulations prompted the guild to cancel those sponsorship agreements.

“A lot of our members were worried, so we decided to pull out of those agreements,” Phillips said. “It was an easy decision to make, even though there was a lot of money involved.”

Phillips added, “It was just a very sensitive issue to a lot of people. We all want to act within the law. No one wants to go over the line and put their breweries at risk.”

Executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association, Tom McCormick, who works with the Northern California Brewers Guild, said the sponsorship issues had been resolved prior to the showcase when Beer Week organizers opted to cut ties with the stores and err on the side of caution.

“I work very closely with the ABC on an ongoing basis,” McCormick said. “We have a great relationship and I really respect the folks over there. But it’s tricky territory and certainly open to interpretation.”

California law employs a system that’s meant to keep alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers separate. They’re known as “tied-house laws” as these entities cannot be tied to one another. For example, it’s illegal for makers to promote sellers. However, there are many exemptions to the rules, which may change slightly if a new bill is embraced.

Reached on the phone earlier this week, Ruhstaller owner Jan-Erik Paino didn’t elaborate about why the brewery, which participated in other Beer Week events, including Sunday’s Capitol Beer Fest, skipped the Feb. 26 showcase.

“We’re huge supporters of Sacramento Beer Week, and this was just an unfortunate set of circumstances where we had to make a tough decision,” Paino said. “We thought about it long and hard. It wasn’t black and white. It was gray, and the gray is typically not worth it when it comes to the ABC.”

John Carr, an ABC public information officer, declined to comment on whether there was an investigation related to Beer Week. But any violation and subsequent disciplinary action is public record, he said.

Alcohol regulations related to sponsorships can be confusing and tricky. Last June, a Twitter mention of a grocery store that was sponsoring Grape Escape, a downtown wine-tasting event, triggered an ABC investigation of eight wineries and breweries.

According to a Bee story last November, the social media mishap occurred when Revolution Wines, a midtown Sacramento winery, retweeted a Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau tweet that named SaveMart, the event’s sponsor. By naming a retailer in its tweet, Revolution Wines had violated “tied-house” laws, a system that arose after Prohibition’s repeal to create independence among alcohol producers, distributors and retailers. Though exceptions exist, producers aren’t allowed to promote retailers, as spelled out in provisions of the California Business and Professions Code related to the alcohol industry.

According to ABC spokesman Carr, eight wineries and breweries were investigated for social media activity mentioning SaveMart, including River City Brewing Co., Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards and Wise Villa Winery. They were required by ABC to turn over all social media postings and emails related to the event. ABC sent letters threatening to suspend their licenses for 10 days, or the businesses could admit to the offense and be placed on probation for one year.

Like Revolution Wines, the other Grape Escape participants investigated by ABC avoided a 10-day suspension of their licenses and accepted a year’s probation as a penalty.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

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