San Diego County’s craft brewing scene was growing at a fast clip, with sales reaching $300 million in economic impact – and breweries were finally opening in the heart of Downtown San Diego. But an old law on the books put them at a competitive disadvantage. As a result of this little-known law, breweries were banned from selling small containers of craft beer – even though tourists and residents were asking for them.
“Brewers were missing out on off-premise sales right as this industry was taking hold,” said Marco Polo Cortes, a business consultant who specializes in common-sense solutions to permit and regulation issues. “Their customers wanted to buy beer to-go, but the law prevented it.”
Downtown San Diego was becoming a hub for craft-beer lovers, including residents of newly built high-rises, convention-goers, vacationers and members of the military. In other places with beer scenes around the U.S., beer aficionados could buy craft beers in 22-ounce or 32-ounce containers, known as “bombers” and “growlers.”
But in 2013, Downtown San Diego breweries were essentially prohibited from selling these smaller containers – disappointing beer aficionados who wanted to take their craft beer to-go.
A City law dating back to the 1980s was intended to support Police Department enforcement efforts against public intoxication. The ordinance required a 64-ounce minimum for beer containers in the Downtown core. “Downtown has stricter alcohol regulations than most of the City in order to reduce the impacts resulting from public inebriation as well as the availability of inexpensive alcohol to downtown’s large homeless population,” a City document stated.
Decades later, with the New York Times declaring San Diego among “the centers of the country’s ever-expanding craft beer industry,” it was clear this local law was hurting the local brewing industry.
Craft-brewing fans visiting a brewery tasting room typically can purchase small containers to sample different varieties. But due to the restrictions on selling singles, that was illegal. In the Downtown area, a customer had to buy a full six-pack or a large jug of beer – an expensive risk if they didn’t end up liking it.
“It was frustrating as a business owner,” said Dan Selis, President of Mission Brewery, the first “packaging” brewery to locate in Downtown San Diego since Prohibition, joining craft beer pioneers such as Karl Strauss. “Our customers wanted to be able to try different kinds of craft beer at home – but we weren’t allowed to sell it to them.”
Marco Polo Cortes was retained by Mission Brewery to pursue solutions to the outdated City rule. Cortes reviewed the existing Plan District Ordinance (PDO) for Civic San Diego and identified the provision setting a minimum size for carry-out beer sales.
“This ordinance put the craft brewing industry at a disadvantage,” said Marco Polo Cortes. “This is a good example of a law with unintended consequences that needed to be changed based on how the industry had evolved.”
Cortes created a coalition of business industry associations and received letters of support from the San Diego Brewers Guild, the Food & Beverage Association of San Diego and the Neighborhood Market Association. Stone Brewing Company, one of the best-known and largest local breweries, became another advocate for changes to the law.
Cortes pursued a comprehensive strategy including engaging with the San Diego Police Department to address their concerns. He pointed out that while the ordinance was aimed at stopping the sale of “inexpensive alcohol,” a 22-ounce bomber typically cost at least $6 and a growler could be $30 or more. Meanwhile, convenience stores sold 64-ounce containers of malt liquor – meeting the minimum size – for as little as $2.
Amending the City ordinance took multiple steps. Cortes guided the effort through review by the Civic San Diego Planning Group, the Civic San Diego Board of Directors, City of San Diego Land-Use Committee and finally, the Mayor and City Council.
“Together, we reached a solution that would be best for the community and the craft brewing industry while allaying the concerns of law enforcement,” Cortes said.
The effort was successful. On April 15, 2014, the San Diego City Council unanimously approved new rules that brought the minimum container size down to 16.9 ounces.
The change was lauded by the industry.
“Marco Polo is among the best in the business at navigating through governmental red tape. He advocates for common-sense solutions that policy-makers can embrace,” Selis said. “As your point person, there’s a lot of value he creates. He’s also a pleasure to work with as a business owner, because he embraces the project and handles it from A to Z.”
The new flexibility led to more breweries locating in Downtown San Diego and East Village, Selis said.
And the local craft brewing industry shows no sign of slowing down. As of 2020, there were an estimated 150 brewers operating within the County of San Diego.
“I’ve very proud of my work helping the craft brewing industry, because it’s a huge economic engine and job creator for our region,” Cortes said.