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Rehoboth's new regulations could keep brewpubs out of town

Andrew Harton
Andrew Harton inspects a tank at Big Oyster Brewery


There is a battle brewing in Rehoboth Beach over the future of brewpubs in the town. The mayor is proposing new regulations on small-scale beer makers and some brewers say the new regulations will keep them out of town.   

Andrew Harton is the head brewer at Big Oyster Brewery. He starts the day making beer at Big Oyster’s home in Fins Ale House & Raw Bar on the Coastal Highway, just outside Rehoboth Beach. The brew operation pumps out about 600 barrels a year, which supplies about half the beer for Fins Ale House.

“That’s not really a lot. A busy brewpub can make 1,200 barrels a year,” Harton said.

Blue Oyster is building a larger brewery/restaurant operation in Lewes that will open in February. The town has welcomed the brewpub with open arms, according to Harton.  

Credit James Morrison / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
The front of Big Oyster Brewing and Fins Ale House & Raw Bar on the Coastal Highway outside Rehoboth Beach.

“A lot of towns want breweries to come. They see the boom that craft brewing is and they want to bring that culture and that economic impact to their town.”  


But a few miles down the road it’s getting harder to open a brewpub.


Rehoboth Beach is rewriting its restaurant code to formally define brewpubs and add about a half a dozen regulations to govern them.


Harton wonders if Rehoboth could be missing an opportunity. It’s already home to a brewpub owned by world renowned beermaker Dogfish Head and is in the unique position to become a to become a major brewpub destination. Instead, these new regulations could push new brew pubs to neighboring towns with friendlier codes.


But Rehoboth Mayor Sam Cooper said the regulations are necessary.

“Rehoboth is a very small town. We’re a square mile total. And unless you backup to another business a lot of our businesses backup to residential areas. Single-family homes, apartments and those sort of things,” Cooper said.   

The new regulations would limit a brewing operation to half the space of a restaurant's 5,000 square foot limit. They would also prohibit a brewpub from creating any “offensive brewery-related airborne or waterborne emissions.” Brewpubs would also be required to obtain a supplemental permit of compliance from the city.

The goal is to ensure brewpubs are primarily restaurants, that just happen to brew beer, according to Cooper.    

“To put it bluntly, we don’t want bars predominating the town that only attracts the drinking customers,” he said.

Credit James Morrison / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Mayor Sam Cooper reading a letter from Dogfish Head about the new restaurant ordinance.

But brewery owners say it’s wrong to equate brewpubs to bars. Many would argue they’re more like wineries.

“Craft brewers are part of the community. Breweries have long been community gathering spaces. And I think small brewers across the country take it very serious that they’re part of the local community and want to make sure they’re operating as responsible businesses to keep that community trust," said Bart Watson, chief economist for the American Brewers Association.


Breweries are opening at a rate of two per day in the United States. And many cities, like Ashland, North Carolina, are capitalizing on this growth by attracting breweries and billing themselves as craft beer destinations.

“Craft brewery tourism is becoming big business in the United States. And people are willing to travel to places they may not go otherwise with beer as one of the reasons for that destination,” according to Watson.

Rehoboth Beach has no problems attracting tourists during the summer, but it could be missing out on craft beer’s ability to draw tourists year-round, especially with millennials becoming a larger portion of the tourist demographic.

For now, the plan is to preserve the town’s culture the way it is. A public hearing for the new code is scheduled for the mayor and commissioners’ regular meeting on October 21 inRehobothBeach.  

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