Lewis Griswold

New microbrewery district is on tap for Visalia downtown area

Co-owner Randy Dyer washes equipment at Brewbakers microbrewery in Visalia.
Co-owner Randy Dyer washes equipment at Brewbakers microbrewery in Visalia. Special to The Bee

The city has created a microbrewery district that could revive an older part of town and allow entrepreneurs to take advantage of the craft beer trend.

By a 5-0 vote, the Visalia City Council last week passed an ordinance establishing the district in east downtown Visalia, effective in 30 days.

The ordinance also covers microwineries.

To open a craft brewery in the district, the owner will not need a special permit. Instead, it will go through the city’s site plan review process for fire safety, traffic, parking and other issues, although a permit would be required if it would be near a church or children’s museum.

The ordinance applies to a brewery producing 15,000 barrels of beer, ale, mead, hard cider or similar beverage, while a microwinery could produce 10,000 cases of wine per year.

The notion of such a district began brewing last year when younger business people went to the Visalia Chamber of Commerce to express concern that starting a microbrewery in Visalia was too difficult under existing city rules.

“It wasn’t feasible for everybody to make their dream a reality,” said Nick Seals, who approached the chamber on behalf of the Tulare County Homebrewers Organization for Perfect Suds. “People in the club wanted to make the jump to a professional level and were having difficulty.”

Under the old zoning rules, a microbrewery had to have a restaurant attached to it or locate in heavy industrial zones far from downtown.

For example, Brewbakers brewpub in downtown could not manufacture beer and sell it to local restaurants or grocery stores for resale because it’s in the wrong zone.

This created a situation where “Brewbakers can’t sell to the Vartanians (owners of three restaurants),” said Gail Zurek, CEO of the Visalia Chamber.

For a city proud of its vibrant restaurant scene, that did not seem right, she said.

She posted an invitation on Facebook and Instagram directed at anyone interested in opening microbreweries, and 15 people showed up for a meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 5, 2015 at which the microbrewery district concept bubbled to the surface.

“They said, ‘This is something we want,’ ” Zurek said.

East downtown Visalia seemed like a perfect match because it is close to the main part of downtown and has older buildings that are unoccupied or underused.

“They have the right vibe,” Zurek said. “They are interesting architecturally.”

In December last year, Zurek addressed the Visalia City Council during public comment and asked the city to establish a microbrewery district.

Councilman Bob Link was immediately supportive. He said he had witnessed the microbrewery scene in San Diego and believed something similar would be a good fit for Visalia, population 130,000.

“They are going to go to Exeter or Tulare if they can’t start something in Visalia,” Link said last week.

The chamber met with the city’s planning director, and the city staff wrote the proposed ordinance that the council adopted last week.

A microbrewery doesn’t have to have a restaurant and can dispense beer on site or deliver to restaurants and retailers. (The same rule will apply to any brewery in town, but a conditional user permit is required outside the microbrewery district.)

Now it’s up to the private sector, but indications are it won’t be long before east downtown gets its first craft brewery.

J.R. Shannon of Visalia, who owns an old building there, said he is working with an out-of-town microbrewery interested in opening an operation in Visalia.

Stephanie Dyer, manager of Brewbakers and wife of co-owner Rod Dyer, said the business already owns a building in the new district where it hopes to make craft beer and open a taproom.

The microbrewery district is good for the craft brewing world, she said.

“We got a lot of tourists going up to Sequoia National Park,” she said. “It’ll make us a destination.”

Lewis Griswold covers the news of the South Valley for The Fresno Bee: 559-441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com, @fb_LewGriswold