Size matters craft brewers challenge florida’s beer container laws t gastrobar

Growlers, an old-fashioned way of enjoying freshly brewed draft beer at home, are all the rage around the country. "Hundreds of brewpubs, breweries and even grocery stores are cashing in on the growing popularity of growlers," USA Today reported recently.

The Sunshine State allows only breweries to sell growlers — large, reusable glass bottles that keep beer from going flat until they are opened. Which means you can’t take a growler home from your favorite brewpub or find it at a grocery store. And the industry standard 64-ounce growler? It’s illegal. Florida restricts growlers to a quart (32 ounces) or gallon (128 ounces).

Florida’s craft brewers would like to see many changes to beer sales regulations, hoping to lower costs and boost business. They would like Florida to be as beer-friendly as North Carolina, where Sierra Nevada plans to open its second brewery and where Asheville has so many breweries it promotes itself as a beer tourist destination.

Before six-packs were common, most beer was consumed at bars. If you wanted to drink beer at home, you bought a growler, usually a small pail. "Rumor has it that when the beer sloshed around the pail," according to beeradvocate.com, "it created a rumbling sound as the CO2 escaped through the lid. Thus the term ‘growler’ was coined."

Growlers barely existed in Florida when Sen. Tom Lee changed the container law, and even a seemingly small change like allowing 64-ounce growlers stirs controversy. A bill aimed at doing just that was killed three years ago. The latest attempt is drawing a bit more support, proving again that making even small changes to beer laws is a big challenge.

For decades, packaged beer in Florida came in just three sizes — 12 ounces, 16 ounces or 32 ounces. That effectively kept Floridians from enjoying hundreds of imports, which come in metric sizes, and American craft beer in 22-ounce "bombers," or 750-milliliter bottles.

The three-tier system was intended to moderate drinking by preventing brewers from owning bars and selling a lot of beer for very low prices. "That’s what largely led to Prohibition,” said Mitch Rubin, a lobbyist for the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, an influential group of beer distributors. The system keeps beer prices higher — and keeps distributors in business.

That means a lobbyist for craft brewers like Aubochon must deal not only with a lobbyist for distributors like Rubin but advocates like Ellen Snelling of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition, which is concerned about underage drinking and impaired driving.

It can seem arbitrary. After all, three 12-ounce cans nearly equals one 40-ouncer. But "a lot of life is arbitrary," Rubin said, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. In his view, a quart growler seems sufficient. A gallon was never intended as a growler but as a small keg, he said.

Still, sometimes alcohol laws had aims other than public safety. The law Lee changed had been passed in 1965 as a way to punish Miller Brewing for building a plant in Georgia instead of Florida by effectively outlawing popular 7-ounce pony bottles, Lee said.

Florida craft brewers would like to change other aspects of Florida beer laws, such as allowing more retailers to hold beer tastings — the rules allowing wine and spirits tastings are not the same for beer — and brewpubs to sell off site through distributors. But given the sensitivity to any change in alcohol regulations, Aubuchon is narrowing this battle to growler size and expanded beer tastings.

He fought this battle three years ago and lost, thanks partly to opposition from Rubin, who has renewed his opposition this year. Aubuchon is a little more optimistic this time, partly because the Beer Industry of Florida, another beer distributors lobby, seems willing to go along or at least not fight him.