- Photo by Rob Bartlett
Have you ever noticed that you can't get a regular growler of beer at your favorite brewpub in Florida? I was reminded of this fact during a visit to Cigar City Brewing Company's tasting room in Tampa a few weeks ago. The brewery's CEO, Joey Redner, detests the fact that Florida's arcane alcohol-container laws won't allow him to sell traditional-sized growlers – sealable glass jugs, usually sold in 64-ounce sizes, that keep beer fresh until opened. He's taped a big, honking sign behind the growler-filling station reminding visitors of this aggravating fact. "We sell growlers in two sizes: 32 oz. and 128 oz.," it reads. "The industry standard in most states is the 64 oz. (1/2 gallon) growler, but Florida has a wacky, nonsensical law that prohibits us from selling them. Ridiculous, isn't it?"
There's another posted below the draft list, in case you missed the first one. And Redner wrote a 2009 editorial for the Tampa Bay Times called "America's dumbest beer laws (yep, Florida makes the list)," in which he crowns our state's regulations the dumbest in the nation. You can also watch Cigar City's 30-second clip on YouTube, "Growlers in Florida," in which Cigar City vice president Justin Clark asks viewers to support legislation that'll be introduced in Tallahassee this session that proposes to change the state's restrictions on selling 64-ounce growlers of beer.
"Thirty-two ounces, or two pints, legal; 128 ounces, or eight pints, legal," Clark says in the video, holding up one huge jug and one very slim one. "The industry standard of 64 ounces, or four pints: illegal. Does this make any sense?"
The bottling law is one part of Florida law policing beer sales and distribution. According to the statutes, every brewery must distribute its product through a middleman, regardless of the brewery's size. The state has a so-called "three-tier" system for regulating alcoholic beverages, and it requires that people involved in the business of selling alcohol only be involved in one of the tiers – manufacture, distribution or vending. Brewpubs can sell beer, but not to go, nor can they sell it for retail purposes. Breweries can sell to distributors and cannot serve beer on site, except in special "tasting rooms" in the interest of "promoting tourism," and brewery tours must be offered on site to satisfy the legal criteria. And growlers – well, the state doesn't make it convenient for people to get them.
"We've had to turn down so many sales from people bringing half-gallon growlers to fill," says Sky Conley, co-owner of Hourglass Brewery. "I have to tell them, 'I'm sorry, I can't.'"
Conley and brewing partner Brett Mason opened Hourglass last September, cramming a five-fermenter brew system and 10-draft line into a cozy wood-and-brick building on Ronald Reagan Boulevard in Longwood. It gave the suburban Orlando municipality its first local brewery, and Hourglass' small-batch, style-blending beers have garnered a devoted clientele. For the past six months, they've sold their quart-sized growlers of beer, and now they're thinking of offering state-approved gallon growlers as well.
"The problem is that gallon growlers cost about six or seven times more for the minimum order," Conley says. "It would have been a lot more cost-effective to start with half-gallon growlers – it's pretty much the standard for growlers. Anybody out of state that comes here, when they ask, 'Have you got growlers?' and I show them our [quart] growlers, they're always like, 'That's cute ... what the hell is that? Is that a medicine bottle?'"
Conley says what's particularly frustrating is that, according to the law, Hourglass can sell someone a 5-gallon keg – "but we can't sell that same person a half-gallon growler. It's silly."
The irony of the growler statute is that it arose to replace another law that, until 2001, forced even more stiff regulations on breweries wishing to sell in the Sunshine State. Only beer bottled in increments of 12, 16 and 32 ounces were permissible under the legislation, effectively banning craft beers shipped in 22-ounce "bomber" bottles, prevalent throughout the rest of the country, from appearing in Florida's coolers and liquor-store shelves.
The revised law sought to fix this issue and open the state's borders to more craft beers, but in the process it invented a whole new problem for Florida beer lovers.
"We have to turn people away multiple times a week," says Crystal Harrison of Orlando Brewing, which has grappled with the growler problem since they began growling their beer in 2006. Housed in a warehouse on Atlanta Drive, Orlando Brewing has become something of a tourist destination. Those looking to sample the local brew between stints at the theme parks come here, sometimes drifting in one by one, other times trundling in via hotel shuttle. They often tote their own half-gallon growlers from home, looking to fill up.
"They are in shock, every time, when we tell them we can't fill it," Harrison says. "They almost look at me like I'm lying to them."
Jay, a Seattle homebrewer park-hopping between Universal Studios and Disney with his wife, couldn't believe it when he stopped in Orlando Brewing last January. He asked for a half-gallon bottle of their Hopgasmic IPA, only to be proffered a quart or gallon growler, instead.
Unwilling to splurge on a small fishtank of beer, Jay settled on the quart-sized iteration.
"You really can't fill a half-gallon?" he asked during his visit. "Even if I brought my own?"
There has at least been momentum for changes to growler size legislation through the state congress. On Feb. 12 House Bill 715, sponsored by state Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise, was filed to amend the law and allow 64-ounce growlers to be filled and sold throughout the Sunshine State. Florida Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, introduced a second piece of legislation, Senate Bill 1344, on Feb. 28 outlining the same proposals to alter Florida's bottling law.
If either of these bills pass into law, they would take effect July 1, 2013, and for many beer lovers and brewers, they couldn't come soon enough.