Beer Run

Beer Run: Want a single in midtown? You’ll have to go off the grid

One of the most common ways to buy craft beer is in the form of large-format bottles, usually 22 ounces, often pretty pricey and, on the grid at least, all but impossible to come by.

That’s right, in Sacramento’s downtown-midtown core, the sale of single bottles is an ongoing, hotly debated topic. With the opening of 10 new Sacramento-area breweries in 2013 and more on the horizon, surely the ban of singles is going to end, right?

That’s what I thought, and that’s what a lot of us who live and/or work on the grid assumed. It’s a new day, a new midtown, a new era for beer.

Then I sat down and had a lengthy chat with Steve Hansen, who represents District 4 on the City Council. Hansen lives downtown, is a supporter of the local craft beer scene, wants to see our urban area thrive, has a vision of a dynamic, modern Sacramento … and he’s not so thrilled about changing the policy about singles.

You mean to buy one really good 22-ounce beer, we have to leave the grid for other parts of the city? You see, there is not a blanket ban on single sales in Sacramento. It’s basically approved or denied at the discretion of the Police Department, often after gathering neighborhood feedback.

Same with really bad beer. Oddly, the letter of the law does not distinguish between exquisite craft beer made to titillate the senses and high-octane malt liquor made to obliterate the senses.

The difference in midtown/downtown is the significant transient population and the disproportionate number of small grocery markets that sell cheap booze. The two have a symbiotic relationship that tends to blight residential neighborhoods.

“The single-sales ordinance came about because a lot of these smaller markets were selling indiscriminately and causing a nuisance,” Hansen explained. “Deborah Ortiz, when she was on the council (1993-96), brought this forward, and it did impact the neighborhoods in a very positive way.”

The new grid is more vibrant, but it’s not necessarily ready for the sale of singles.

“There is a tug of war going on between who we want to be, who we were and who we are now. The bottle ordinance is in some ways a symbol of that,” Hansen said.

Caught in the middle is the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, a local institution with a customer base that seeks out organic produce, grass-fed beef and all kinds of responsibly sourced products.

“The ordinance is outdated and inflexible. It’s a one-size-fits-all ordinance that shouldn’t apply to us,” Steven Maviglio, vice president of the Co-op’s Board of Directors, told me in an email exchange. “The Co-op competes with other large grocers, not corner stores. All of our major competitors – none of which are a Sacramento-based business with 40 years in our community – are selling the craft beers that we want to sell. But the Police Department says that even if our midtown neighbors supported granting us a license, they are handcuffed from providing it, even though they’ve done so for our competitors.

“They’re treating us like they are treating a gas station convenience store. And there doesn’t seem to be the political will to changing the ordinance or providing an exemption for our business. So instead we are being put at a competitive disadvantage.”

The city compromise is to allow the Co-op to sell two at a time, rather than singles.

Is there a creative way to make everyone happy on the issue of singles? A will to change the policy? Not yet. Not even close.

“It’s one of those things where we acknowledge that it’s not perfect, but the good outweighs the bad,” Hansen said of the ordinance. “What’s the overriding consideration? Is it to have neighborhoods where people feel safe and secure and where some of these nuisances aren’t exacerbated? Or is it to give people the opportunity to buy a craft beer single who don’t want to buy two?”

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