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For decades you could find dogs and their owners enjoying a cold one at breweries across the commonwealth.
That soon could change. A law against pets in bars has been in place for more than four decades, but went unenforced in many breweries due to a lack of awareness.
In July, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences (VDACS), a government body that enforces regulations in breweries and wineries across the state, added a regulation to the law which allowed pets to enter areas that don’t have direct access to rooms used for manufacturing or serving beverages, like outdoor beer gardens and taprooms.
Before the new regulation, these outdoor areas were considered off-limits to pets and regulated the same as tasting and manufacturing areas.
The regulation was intended to let people include their pets in brewery outings, but, according to VDACS Director of Communications Elaine Lidholm, the update has caused big misunderstandings among brewery owners and the public, who were unaware of the original law.
“The existing law has been around for 40 years and says no animals, except legitimate guide dogs, can be in any area where food is cooked, stored or served,” Lidholm said. “Ironically, when we added the new regulation, people complained that we were taking away their privileges to let animals inside— privileges they didn’t even have.”
That is about to change with the addition of a new regulation to a little-known Virginia law prohibiting pets from entering breweries. Information about the new regulation began trending after Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers in Roanoke were caught breaking the law, Lidholm said.
Lidholm said VDACS received several complaints that dogs were urinating on barrels at the Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers. When confronted by VDACS, the brewery owner said he thought dogs were allowed.
“We told him that dogs have never been allowed in breweries,” Lidholm said. “The problem has since been resolved, but people in Roanoke are up in arms thinking that we took away their rights.”
AleWerks Brewery in York County has an outdoor patio next to the taproom where food is not served. According to Taproom Manager Zac Moore, patrons can bring their dog to the brewery if the animal remains outside.
“On the weekends we’ll see three to four dogs throughout the day,” said Moore. “Obviously the owners are responsible for their pets. I’ve never once had to ask somebody to remove their animal. It’s like a dog park. People don’t take their aggressive dog out to the dog park.”
Kevin O’Connor, who has allowed dogs inside O’Connor Brewing Company in Norfolk since it opened on March 17, 2010, said before he became aware of the law it was common to see multiple dogs in the brewery each day, with up to 100 at a time during the brewery’s annual Dogtoberfest.
“I had no idea this law existed. I don’t think it’s going to affect our business, but it’s just kind of sad,” he said. “We’ve always been dog friendly.”
O’Connor said he understands that VDACS is concerned about cross-contamination of animals and beer, but he doesn’t believe it’s ever been a problem at his brewery.
“All of our tanks are sealed and nothing will get in the beer,” he said.
Dog owner and O’Connor Brewing Company regular Heather Hitchcock said she doesn’t have a problem leaving her pups at home.
“I think it’s been great to bring dogs here. It got trendy for a while, but I understand the health issues. I’ll just put our dogs in a crate instead of bringing them,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a very big deal, but I think animal lovers who don’t have children might be more upset.”
Bob Sweeney, an O’Connor employee who was accustomed to bringing his dog to the brewery, also pointed out the necessity of the law.
“I can see the issue from both perspectives. I understand the reasoning behind the law because cleanliness is necessary in food processing plants,” he said. “But I would not stop coming here because I couldn’t bring my dog with me.”
Although Moore and O’Connor do not expect to lose any patrons, the recent crackdown on breweries conflicts with the way Virginia has been marketed in the past.
The Virginia Tourism Corporation has used the beer scene as a way to promote Virginia as a pet-friendly destination, listing more than 50 breweries across the state as dog-friendly businesses, including O’Connor Brewing Company and AleWerks.
According to Lidholm, this was a mistake by the tourism industry that has since been clarified in their promotional materials.
“We had a talk with tourism and explained that they were advocating something that is against the law,” she said. “Since then, a note has been added to their marketing materials to include the recent clarification.”
Though O’Connor plans to abide by the law, he hopes that regulations will change if the issue gets enough backing.
“We’re not the only brewery that thinks this is mindless,” he said.
Moving forward, O’Connor anticipates full cooperation from patrons, who are still allowed to keep pets in outdoor brewery areas.
“We’re constantly reminding people about the changes,” he said. “We have an expansive beer garden that people can utilize in the warmer months, but I think people will slowly start leaving their dogs at home.”
Breweries that fail to comply will be given a 30-day notice before a second inspection. If the problem persists, the issue will be passed to the area commonwealth’s attorney.
“We are not the sheriff riding into the saloon to shut it down,” Lidholm said.
Andrew Harris contributed reporting.
This post has been updated to reflect that O’Connor Brewing Company is located in Norfolk, not Virginia Beach.