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Why D.C. Breweries Say They're Drowning In Red Tape

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Hellbender Brewing Co. is the newest brewery to hit D.C., but that doesn't mean its owners didn't experience issues with city agencies when trying to open the place.
Justin Stone
Hellbender Brewing Co. is the newest brewery to hit D.C., but that doesn't mean its owners didn't experience issues with city agencies when trying to open the place.

There are five packaging breweries in the city of Washington. D.C. Brau led the way in 2011. It was the first the District had seen since 1956: the year the Christian Heurich Brewing Company closed its doors.

But local brewers say the city’s beer renaissance has thrown the D.C. government for a loop, leading to bureaucratic confusion that can be harder to see through than a freshly-poured Guinness.

A frustrating, if amusing, regulatory process

In D.C. Brau’s tasting room on Bladensburg Road, CEO and co-founder Brandon Skall shows off a wall festooned with brewery permits.

“We've got our basic business license. We've got our industry-specific manufacturing permits that are issued from the city. We've also got our certificate of occupancy,” he says.

The basic business license and Certificate of Occupancy come from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). The industry-specific permit comes through the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). The third agency whose sign-off all breweries need is the D.C. Department of Health.

“As far as all the agencies we dealt with, we ran into the most roadblocks with the Department of Health,” Skall explains. “It took a while to impress upon them our exact procedures and why we are not a food business in the sense of a normal deli, restaurant, somebody who’s providing that kind of consumable.”

At 3 Stars Brewing Company in Takoma Park, they have their "wall of permits" on display. (Rebecca Sheir/WAMU)

But here’s the thing: “Brewery” is not on DCRA’s books as a business-license category. So, since beer is technically a food product, breweries are licensed as "delicatessens" or "restaurants." And that amuses D.C. Brau’s president and head brewer Jeff Hancock.

“To have the ‘restaurant’ moniker even though we're a beer-production facility, people that have come to the brewery obviously know we're not cooking up burgers or serving up salads,” he says.

Yet the Department of Health inspects them as such. Which is why, as Brandon and Jeff explain, DOH had initially ordered D.C. Brau to install a mop sink.

“Mops… may be good for a business like a restaurant or deli,” explains Skall. “[But] they harbor a lot of things that you can't see even if the mop looks clean, [that] can cause environmental infections in your product, which is one of the reasons that everything in the back in the production facility is usually spray-cleaned, sometimes foamed.”

“I would dare to say I would eat off our floors!” Hancock adds with a laugh.

Unnecessary modifications add to delays

But speaking of floors, they proved to be a big issue at D.C.’s newest brewery, Hellbender Brewing Company in Northeast D.C. In the 8,000-square-foot brew house, co-owner Ben Evans points out how the concrete floor is coated with a clear epoxy.

“The Health Department required us to seal every square inch of the brewery space,” he says.

The Department’s rationale was the epoxy would protect the beer from contamination. Ben tried telling DOH that beer-brewing involves a little process known as pasteurization.

“We reach a full boil in the brewing process,” he explains. “And then the beer is basically cooled through a series of pipes. And through the rest of the process, until it reaches your pint glass, it never sees the light of day again.”

But DOH made him and co-owner Patrick Mullane seal the floor anyway. It cost them $35,000.

“I don't even want to think about the price again, but it was a lot of extra work and hasn't aided us in any way whatsoever,” Ben says.

Hellbender had to make other modifications too, like the aforementioned mop sink. As a result, says Patrick, they had to delay their opening about 10 months.

“And in the meantime you're writing $5,000 or $10,000 rent checks every month, and you've got absolutely nothing to show for it,” he says.

Hellbender Brewing Co. co-owners Ben Evans (L) and Patrick Mullane (R) had to delay their opening about 10 months to deal with issues with city agencies. (Courtesy Hellbender)

But Hellbender’s biggest snag came shortly before this story was set to air, when DCRA stopped by for a surprise boiler inspection. Ben and Patrick had already had third-party boiler inspections. Their engineers, mechanical contractors and general contractors had all checked out the boiler when it was installed, and DCRA signed off on everything.

But, it turns out DCRA was supposed to do its own inspection. Ben says the agency never made it clear that was supposed to happen. So this week, DCRA inspectors came by and are now saying Hellbender’s steam-boiler system is “not being operated pursuant to code.” In other words, its steam pressure is higher than 15 pounds per square inch, or PSI.

Ben says high-pressure systems are typical in breweries nationwide. But DCRA says if Hellbender uses this system, a certified steam-boiler engineer must be on site whenever it’s running. If the guys switch to a low-pressure system, they'll just need a daily inspection.

And actually, another beer-making establishment has been doing just that since it opened in 2013. Thor Cheston owns Right Proper Brewpub: a restaurant and brewery in Shaw.

“We bought an unbelievable expensive, gorgeous boiler for our brewery, top of the line in terms of technology,” Thor says. “We had to retrofit it. We had to make it dumber, essentially, so that it would meet the D.C. code.”

And now it’s less efficient, he says. Plus, having a boiler man visit every day is costing Right Proper $12,000 a year.

“We need those $12,000 to do so many other things,” he says. “The fact that we have to spend them because the regulations in D.C. say we have to is completely absurd."

“And even our boiler man; he’s such a nice guy,” Thor adds. “He comes in and he’s like, ‘Oh, man. I’m sorry.’”

But on the bright side, because Right Proper is technically a licensed restaurant with a brewing ‘addendum,’ Thor did get to avoid many of those Health Department hurdles his colleagues faced.

“They were much more focused on what was going on in the kitchen and not in the brewery,” he explains. “So I almost felt like the kitchen was a distraction from the brewery.”

Restaurant or brewery? The difference matters

Dr. Rick Mehta is with the Health Regulation and Licensing Administration at DOH. He says all his department is doing is deferring to DCRA.

“If they categorize it as a restaurant, then our understanding is the place could potentially be operating as a restaurant,” Mehta says. “And so if the regulations require us to follow certain components of it as it’s being categorized, then those are the items that we would look for.”

So for DOH, everything hinges on the business license. But if you ask DCRA, the agency says otherwise.

“The licensing component is really less important,” says Business and Professional Licensing Administrator Eric Rogers. “The health component is the most important aspect of it.”

And right now, he admits the relationship between the two can lead to confusion.

“So we've been in conversations with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, ABRA, looking at ways that we give a certain license type, where we would tie in the health inspection,” he explains. “Do we require it as a precondition of our license? Or will they require it as a condition of the liquor license? So we're still working through some of that. But it should make for an easier and more seamless process for the breweries and distilleries.”

Something Hellbender’s Patrick Mullane says will make things ‘easier and more seamless’ is the recently-formed D.C. Brewers Guild, which will provide a united front for brewers when tackling issues with the city.

“When you’re just one brewery, trying to forge your way, you're still kind of on your own in the eyes of those agencies,” says. “So when there’s a lot of us joined together under the same banner, that’s going to be a big help.”

In the meantime, though, Patrick hopes even more folks in Washington will consider starting their own breweries here.

“I just hope everything we said doesn’t scare other potential brewers away! It’s great being a brewer here in the city. It’s a wonderful community and all the headaches are heartache are worth it in the end.”

Music: "Too Many Rules and Regulations" by Sugar Ray & The Bluetones from Evening

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