The California State Senate unanimously passed a bill Monday allowing breweries to fill growlers that do not have their name emblazoned on them. The state Assembly has already passed the measure, but will need to vote on some changes made by the senate. It is expected to take up the measure soon and the bill seems likely to head to the governor’s desk.

Traditionally, state alcohol regulators allowed breweries to fill growlers – the big jugs, usually glass and usually in a half-gallon or two-liter size – only if the jug was labeled and sold by that brewery. That meant you couldn’t bring a generic jug from home, or use a growler from one brewery to fill up with brew from some other brewery. The state ABC loosened that regulation a little this summer, but lawmakers are moving forward to lift the ban unequivocally by allowing breweries to fill outside growlers brought in by consumers.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can use any old jug at your favorite brewery, since the law doesn’t require brewers to fill outside growlers. Russian River has already said No in no uncertain terms. Owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo posted a note on their website saying the have spent considerable time and money on their custom-designed logo-bearing growlers and the system to clean and fill  them and they are not willing to compromise that system to fill containers that might not fit correctly under the  taps.

Also, they say, growlers are a marketing tool just as much as a beer bottle or packing case.

“Growlers are like bottles- it’s just another way to package beer to go,” they write. “We work hard to make the best beer possible and are proud to put our name on it! Nothing against other breweries growlers, but we want our beer going home with you in our branded growler!”

I am checking with other area breweries to see how they plan to handle the outside growler issue.

UPDATE – it appears that many area brewpubs don’t do growler fills at all, but those that do are split. Anderson Valley tells me they only allow fills from their own growlers at the moment, though that’s only because the current ABC policy is unclear. They haven’t given much thought to what to do should  the legislature clarify  the law. Mendocino Brewing, meanwhile, allows outside growlers provided the bar employee who fills it can seal it and apply a sticker identifying Mendocino as the producer.

Third Street Aleworks doesn’t mind outside growlers, the general manager tells me, and Jesus Ceja, owner of the new Carneros Brewing says it’s fine with him too. “We have a beautiful growler they can buy on site, but if they want to bring a growler from another brewery, that’s A-OK,” he said.

Likewise, Bear Republic Brewmaster Richard Norgrove said he will welcome outside growlers because it gives consumers another way to enjoy his beer at home. They haven’t worked out details yet, they expect to set up some kind of quick cleaning system for the growlers, but even so they will warn consumers that they can’t guarantee the freshness of the beer because they can’t guarantee that the growler was cleaned and sanitized correctly before it comes in the door. That’s been one of the big worries from brewers – if a consumer brings in a badly cleaned growler, the beer could spoil quickly and make the brewery look bad because of something beyond its control.

Tony Magee of Lagunitas said he hasn’t decided whether to allow outside growlers, but he “would prefer not to.” Much like Norgrove, he is worried that the incoming growlers might not be properly cleaned and sanitized. “The beer wouldn’t taste too good and [the customer] might not know why,” he said. The way it works now is that someone comes in with an old Lagunitas growler and the staff swaps it out with a fresh, clean one from their stock, so they can be sure the outgoing beer has a fighting chance to be fresh. Tony hasn’t decided what to do if the state lifts the ban. It’s possible he might put in a sanitizing station and fill outside growlers, but it sounds like he is leaning toward keeping the Lagunitas-only rule in place no matter what Sacramento says.

– Sean Scully


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