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Raise your mug

In California, the state with the most breweries, beer tastings are now legal.

January 06, 2007

THEY MAY BE the two most beautiful words in the English language: free beer. They can draw corporate drones to the office picnic, reluctant relatives to a family barbecue and now, brewers hope, customers to a licensed beer retailer.

In California, winemakers have long had the "tastings" market to themselves. (Makers and sellers of spirits can also offer free tastings, though winemakers' are more popular.) That changed this week, when a law went into effect that allows beer makers and sellers to hand out free 8-ounce suds samples at restaurants and bars. To paraphrase the noted beer critic Jesse Montgomery: Dude, where's my stein?

As any customer of Trader Joe's can attest, the free sample has an allure that often exceeds its value. Although wine, spirits and beer makers can all offer tastings at their own facilities, until Monday only wine and spirits makers could offer "instructional tastings" of their beverages at restaurants and bars or other places.

Beers were left out of the tastings game, possibly because beer tastings seemed more about intoxication than instruction and lacked the snob appeal of wine tastings. There's also the theory, untested by science but supported by experience, that beer drinkers don't necessarily want to swish their drink around their mouths and think up polysyllabic adjectives to describe it. They're content to sit and grunt at the TV.

Yet California is as much beer country as it is wine country. It has more breweries than any other state, and the beer industry, led by Anheuser-Busch Cos., has apparently decided that beer tastings are the best way for brewers big and small to publicize their latest batches.

California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control says it receives few complaints about wine and spirits tastings. The department anticipates that beer tastings will go down just as smoothly. Like the law for wine and spirits, beer tastings have an ounce limit that's below full serving size, and tastings are restricted to one hour. So large breweries won't dominate, only six tastings a year are allowed at any establishment.

Beer brewers now have the same opportunity that wine and spirits makers have: They can offer free samples and "education" to thirsty consumers. Let the learning begin.

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