Demystifying the Occupancy Classifications for Micro-distilleries

Posted September 16, 2019 by Koorsen Fire & Security

Demystifying the Occupancy Classifications for Micro-distilleries

Micro-distilleries have become a growing concern among fire safety professionals due to the lack of distillery-specific fire codes, which can make it difficult for distilleries owners as well as the authorities that regulate them to know if an operation is in compliance. Part of the problem is that many micro-distilleries engage in very different business activities in a single location, which causes considerable confusion around the applicable occupancy and commodity classifications. For example, a distillery contains a tasting room or offers tours to the public, is it an assembly occupancy or an industrial occupancy with hazardous materials?    

This post will explore the requirements for occupancy and commodity classifications relevant to distillery operations, and more specifically, micro-distilleries. We’re focusing on these requirements as they relate to micro-distilleries to help owners of small, independent craft distilleries better understand the regulations and how the different activities they pursue in their business model might impact them.

Let’s Start With a Common Vocabulary

The craft distilling industry has grown so quickly in recent years that it has outpaced the ability of regulations to keep up. This does not mean that there are no applicable regulations. Rather, it just makes it harder to know which ones apply to your specific operation and which ones don’t. 

Understanding the definitions that are relevant for your operation can help to figure out which codes apply. However, the current national codes upon which most state and local regulations are based on do not yet offer specific definitions for craft- or micro-distillery operations, which are the two terms you hear most often in reference to the small distillery operations now popping up all over the country.  
So, what exactly is the difference between a craft distillery and a micro-distillery? Wikipedia defines a micro-distillery as “a small, often boutique-style distillery established to produce beverage grade spirit alcohol in relatively small quantities, usually done in single batches.” The American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) defines “craft” distilleries based on the volume of spirits in proof gallons they produce each year:  

  • Small craft distilleries produce less than 10,000 proof gallons of spirits annually. 
  • Medium craft distilleries produce between 10,001 and 100,000 proof gallons each year. 
  • Large craft distilleries produce between 100,001 and 750,000 proof gallons annually.

While it isn’t clear from the Wikipedia definition exactly what “small” means, if we look at that definition within the context of ACSA’s categories for craft distilleries, we can reasonably infer that the term “micro-distillery” could be defined in terms of its business model and/or its production volume. 

Both are important factors in determining the appropriate occupancy and commodity classifications. And, with 92 percent of U.S. craft distilleries falling into the “small” category, the importance of understanding how those classifications relate to these unique operations is clear.    

Occupancy and Commodity Classifications Defined

Occupancy classifications pertain to the use or intended use of a space while commodity classifications are based on the types of materials that may be present in the space. Both factors can have a significant impact on the characteristics of a fire, especially in terms of how hot it will burn and how quickly it might spread, which is why they provide the basis for most fire safety regulations. 

Understanding occupancy is particularly important for micro-distilleries because many, if not most of them, are operating in buildings that have been repurposed. Whenever the use of a building or a space within it changes, its occupancy changes, requiring that the fire protection system be reevaluated to determine if it will still provide the necessary protection. Given the risks inherent in distillery operations and the often unique mix of business activities micro-distilleries engage in, making this determination can be difficult indeed. 

Depending on the code(s) your state’s fire safety regulations are based on, occupancies may be defined somewhat differently. Some jurisdictions will adopt the occupancy classifications defined in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Code, while others may use those contained in the International Building Code (IBC). Therefore it helps to know which code(s) your state’s fire safety regulations are based on. Table 1 provides a summary of the occupancy codes from each regulation body that apply to common micro-distillery operations. 

Table 1: Comparison of NFPA and IBC occupancy codes for common micro-distillery operations.

Common Business Activities for Micro-distilleries NFPA 101 Occupancy Type IBC Occupancy Group
Tasting Room Assembly Occupancy (applies to a space within the building in which 50 or more people gather for entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, or similar uses)  A-2 (applies to a space within the building in which people gather for food and/or drink consumption) 
Distillery Tours A-3 (assembly for recreation or amusement and other assembly uses not otherwise classified) 
On-premise Store Mercantile (use of a building or space within the building for the display and sale of merchandise)  M (use of a building or space within the building for the display and sale of merchandise) 
Business Office Business (use of a building or space within the building for the transaction of business other than mercantile)  B (use of a building or space within the building for office transactions, including storage of records and accounts) 
Distillery Operations High Hazard Industrial Occupancy (use of a building or space within a building for industrial operations that include high hazard materials, processes, or contents are conducted) 

F-1 Moderate Hazard Industrial or H-3 Hazardous Industrial (use of a building or space within a building for industrial operations that include high hazard materials, processes, or contents are conducted; applicable occupancy depends on the total quantity of spirits contained in the facility) 

Storage of Distilled Spirits Storage Occupancy (use of a building or space within a building for the storage of goods, merchandise, products)  S-1 Moderate Hazard Storage (use of a building or space within a building for storage that is classified as a hazardous occupancy and does not include S-2 low-hazard, non-combustible materials) 


Most micro-distilleries engage in more than one of the business activities described in Table 1 on the same premises, which would classify them as a “multiple occupancy.” Multiple occupancies are defined as a building or structure in which two or more classes of occupancy exist. Since occupancies are used to determine which codes apply, different codes would apply to each different activity within a micro-distillery.  

The key is knowing what kind of fire protection system you have. If any of these activities are intermingled within an area protected by a single fire protection system (e.g. sprinkler system), the occupancy would be considered a “mixed” occupancy. For mixed occupancies, the fire protection system must be designed to meet the requirements of the most stringent occupancy in that space to ensure adequate protection. It is also possible to install different fire protection systems for the different occupancies within a micro-distillery. Therefore, it is important for micro-distilleries opening up in existing buildings to understand which occupancies apply and whether the existing fire protection system will meet the requirements applicable to all aspects of their operation. 

Occupancy and the Flammable Liquids Code

The most stringent occupancy classifications that will apply to most micro-distilleries will be either a High Hazard Industrial Occupancy if your state/local codes are based on the NFPA, or an F-1 Moderate Hazard Industrial or H-3 Hazardous Industrial Occupancy if  the codes are based on the IBC. The hazardous classification is due to the flammability and other fire risks associated with distilled spirits. 

The regulations contained in NFPA 30 Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code will almost certainly apply to any distillery, whether the occupancies defined in your state’s fire regulations come from NFPA 101 or the IBC.

The classifications of flammable liquids in NFPA 30 are used for determining the various fire protection requirements for their storage and use. They are based on the flash point of the liquid, which is the minimum temperature at which sufficient vapor is given off the liquid to form an ignitable mixture in the air. Most spirits are Class 1C liquids with flashpoints between 73-100 degrees Fahrenheit (o F). It is the flashpoint of spirit alcohol that makes ignition such a serious concern in distilleries. For example, the flashpoint of a liquor such as whiskey or vodka is 79o F, which is not much higher than typical room temperatures. And, the still house, which is where the distillation process takes place is usually a very warm room, which significantly increases fire risk. 

Analyzing Your Fire Risk is the First Step in Mitigating It

Chapter 6 of NFPA 30 provides the regulations for fire and explosion prevention and risk control. Among them is the requirement to conduct a thorough analysis of your operation to determine whether the fire protection systems you currently have in place are adequate. According to the code, this analysis should be conducted in consultation with the authority having jurisdiction or through an engineering evaluation of the operation. This evaluation should include the following:

  1. Analysis of the fire and explosion hazards of the operation
  2. Analysis of emergency relief from process vessels, taking into consideration the properties of the materials used and the fire protection and control measures taken 
  3. Analysis of applicable facility design requirements Chapters 17, 18, 19, 28, and 29 of NFPA 30
  4. Analysis of applicable requirements for liquid handling, transfer, and use, as covered in Chapters 17, 18, 19, 28, and 29 of NFPA 30
  5. Analysis of local conditions, such as exposure to natural disasters and exposure from adjacent properties. While the code does not specifically mention it, evaluating the potential risk to adjacent buildings is also important for micro-distilleries located in crowded urban areas frequented by the public.
  6. Analysis of the emergency response capabilities of the local emergency services

Koorsen Can Help

While the NFPA 30 does not specifically state that sprinklers are a required part of the fire protection system for a distillery operation, they almost certainly will be in most jurisdictions, especially for micro-distilleries located in urban and suburban settings and/or in close proximity to other buildings. Our next post will take a deep dive into the sprinkler system requirements for micro-distilleries. 

In the meantime, whether you are considering opening a new micro-distillery or are already in operation, Koorsen has experts ready to help you navigate the complex maze of regulations to understand which ones apply to your unique operation. We can help you perform a thorough analysis as required in NFPA 30 to ensure your micro-distillery will not only be in compliance with all applicable fire codes but will provide the fire protection you need to keep your employees and customers safe. Contact Koorsen today to learn more.

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Topics: Fire Protection, Fire Safety, Fire Safety & Security

Disclaimer: The information in this article is for informational purposes only. It is believed to be reliable, but Koorsen Fire & Security assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this article. It does not constitute professional advice. The user of this article or the product(s) is responsible for verifying the information's accuracy from all available sources, including the product manufacturer. The authority having jurisdiction should be contacted for code interpretations.