Gov. Jerry Brown (the guy with the pen and the Track 7 growler) has signed the new growler bill, sponsored byAssemblymember Wesley Chesbro, D – North Coast (the guy with the big smile – no word on whose beer that is). The bill ends confusion over the rules for filling the big beer jugs. For a long time, the ABC inisted that the law said breweries could only fill growlers bearing their own distinctive logo. Then earlier this year, ABC revised its reading of the law to allow outside growler fills, either generic jugs or ones with logos of rival breweries, but the requirements were kind of hazy – did you have to eradicate the old label, or could you just cover it up with, say, a brown paper bag? Because of the confusion, many breweries stuck with the old policy and refused to refill outside growlers.
The new bill makes it more explicit: Breweries can fill any growler, but they do have to cover up any old label in at least a semi-permanent way (most people are opting to wrap it with an opaque plastic tape rather than use paint or wield a scraper to remove the old logo) and they have to affix a new tag or label to say exactly what kind of beer is in the bottle.
The new bill doesn’t REQUIRE a brewery to fill outside growlers, however, and many say they won’t. Most famously, Russian River has said they see logo-ed growlers as an a part of their marketing, so they wouldn’t send beer out in someone else’s jug any more than they would use someone else’s bottle or case box to ship product to a store. Other breweries don’t fill growlers at all just because it is a hassle.
Interestingly, there is one small detail of the bill that most news articles, including my own, ignored, but which is in fact far more significant for industry insiders. The bill tightens the definition of a beer manufacturing facility to require that it own and use equipment to manufacture beer. This ends what the industry says was an abuse by some restaurant owners who were applying for brewpub licenses but not making any beer – the brewpub licenses are easier to get than regular liquor licenses, but they come with many of the same perks (in some cases more) and legit breweries were very irritated at these non-brewing-brewpubs.
But the governor’s signature is not the end of the growler fight by any means. Next year, beer retailers are likely to push for a bill that would allow growler fills at beer bars and stores (currenly you can only do growlers at breweries and brewpubs). That would bring California in line with many states, where you can fill up a growler at just about any place that has a working beer tap. Back in September, California Craft Brewers Association Executive Director Tom McCormick spoke at a conference by the industry website Brewbound and warned of a “pretty epic political battle” over the wider growler bill. It could set up an awkward fight among retailers, distributors, and brewers, who are divided: some don’t want retailers stepping on their monopoly on growlers, but others think allowing bars and stores to fill the jugs would mean moving even more product to consumers.
“Only beer manufacturers have the privilege of filling containers of beer,” McCormick told the Brewbound audience. “A lot of brewers feel that is a nice privilege to have. Retailers would like the ability to fill growlers but there are mixed feeling from the craft brewing community.”
For the moment, however, you can feel free to pick up your jug and march down to your local brewer for a fill-er-up. Just be sure to check in first to make sure they do growlers.
– Sean Scully