Earlier this year, we shared with you the positive side of purchasing (and frequently filling) a growler from your local brewery. You get to drink fresh beer that may not be commercially available beyond the taproom doors (and at a reduced price, no less), while the breweries lean on the support of growler lovers to help them grow and thrive in their local craft beer environment. In short, growlers are great. Except when they're confusing, apparently.
The normal process of purchasing and filling a growler is as such: pay for the glassware and the first fill (say, around $17), then bring the growler back to the same brewery you purchased it from at a later date for another fill, minus the cost of the jug itself. It's a simple, easy transaction that may lead to collecting a few different growlers from the various breweries you frequent, but it's nothing that a little bit of shelf space can't solve.
Except, lately, an online rumble surrounding the legal abilities of breweries to fill blank growlers (or even growlers from a competing brewery) has begun to gain a voice. There are some that feel their two liter Stone Brewing growlers aren't getting the attention they deserve, and they'd love to be able to legally have them filled at their local brewery of choice, instead of waiting to make the haul back down to northern San Diego County. It's an interesting idea, and could hypothetically solve the issue of growler clutter for some hardcore craft beer fans (or do away with the first time cost of purchasing new glassware), but it's not exactly legal. Or is it?
During a mid-February Alcoholic Beverage Control workshop in San Diego for the California Craft Brewers Association, local breweries from Eagle Rock to Golden Road heard from Jacob Appelsmith, the current director of the ABC, about the legalities of growler fills. In essence, the state does not regulate growlers differently than any other purchased container of alcohol, which means it must conform to the current regulations regarding packaging and labeling. However, since there are no guidelines as to what a growler technically is, any container could hypothetically be used as a suitable replacement to the dark brown glassware we're all so accustomed to. All of this would seem to indicate a moment of opportunity for those interested parties looking to get their growler-full-of-beer fix using another brewery's hardware (or an old piggy bank, or a water-tight shoebox ... you get the idea).
Consumers and breweries both need to look closely again at the packaging and labeling laws that govern the state of California, as well as the federal regulations that come from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Trade Bureau. Any container used to hold and transport alcohol must have a proper label affixed that identifies the contents as well as the manufacturer, and has been approved by the state. In addition, all new labeling must completely obscure any old identifying markings regarding the previous container's contents (or where they were manufactured). You can read the full legalese here, if you'd like.
Currently, California craft breweries are treading lightly. There is still plenty of murkiness surrounding the actual use of "approved labeling," including sizing, placement, look and contained information, all of which would need to be streamlined for multiple different breweries across an array of growler sizes and shapes. Secondarily, the term "affixed" doesn't specify between a printed label and a hanging tag, or a white sticker written on with black marker. None of this also speaks to the potential financial impact for brewery taprooms having to automate a new system of labeling for containers that have not already been previously approved. And to be clear, the folks at Alcoholic Beverage Control don't make the laws, they just enforce them. Until many of these legalities are cleared up at the legislative level, filling growlers willy-nilly (no matter how tempting) seems like a risk few breweries will be willing to take.
As Eagle Rock Brewery owner Jeremy Raub so eloquently stated recently, the ABC laws are permissive instead of prohibitive, which means (in his words) "If you hold an ABC license you can only act in a manner permitted by the law. If the law doesn't specify that you can do something, then you cannot do it!"
Hopefully, a bit of clarity on this issue will be forthcoming, which will allow breweries and growler lovers to better understand their options for fills. At any rate, it's an interesting wormhole of craft beer legality for true beer fans to slide down, and any time an inspired public can learn the technical aspects of the thing they love, everyone wins. But for now, you'll have to dust off (and thoroughly clean) any growlers you haven't used for a while, and head down to the breweries that first supplied them to you. Use it as an opportunity to reconnect with some of the great craft beer operations in and around Los Angeles, or keep your unused growlers stocked up at home for your next home brewing foray. Just don't go running to your local taproom with a big pot, demanding that they fill 'er up. At least not yet anyway.