Growler Follies

It’s been a long time since I sat down to write a blog post, but this recent hullabaloo over California growler laws is certainly a good reason to make some time for it!

Up until just recently everything seemed to be pretty cut-and dry here in California: Only brewers are allowed to fill growlers (with their beers only) and only into growlers that bear their approved labeling.  No exceptions.  Customers were frustrated at this but seemed to accept it with only a bit of grumbling.  Growlers were getting filled; brewers were selling beer; good beer was being consumed; people were happy (mostly).

Then, on February 12, 2013, things seemed to change.

That was the day that the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA) held a workshop for its members at the University of California San Diego.  The title of this workshop was “Know Your ABC’s”, and the purpose was to educate California brewers on the regulations of the California Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), and to help those member brewers stay in compliance with those laws.  During the first part of this workshop Jacob Appelsmith, the Director of the ABC, made a statement to help clarify California growler laws.

I was at that workshop taking copious notes, and I will summarize his major points as follows:

  1. California law does not define the term “growler”.  Since a “growler” is a container used to contain beer, a growler is therefore considered a container, and is subject to the California laws that regulate beer packaging and labeling.
  2. Any “container” can be used as a growler.  Even a dirty old milk-jug – as long as it bears the approved labeling of the brewery filling it, and as long as any non-pertinent information is obscured.  (He also offered “…however, I don’t think any of you would want to put your delicious beer into a stinky old milk-jug…”)
  3. By California law, “growlers” are not required to be sealed after filling and prior to the customer leaving the brewery. However if a customer opens that container before leaving your brewery, and walks outside of your licensed premises with an open container, then your brewery will be in violation of the law for allowing that to occur.

As an example of the above points, Jacob offered up the suggestion that if someone presents a brewer with a growler jug from a different brewery, that brewer would be able to cover the pre-existing brewery’s labeling with a sticker, and that sticker could bear the approved labeling of the brewer filling that growler.  As long as all pertinent information from the previous brewery is obscured, AND as long as the new sticker is the approved labeling of the filling brewery, no laws are being broken.

Sounds pretty simple, right?  Well, that’s also what somebody thought who was in attendance at that workshop and posted some of those basic points.  The problem – and where things get tricky – is that they didn’t convey ALL of the information that was presented at the workshop, and didn’t seem to pay attention to the remainder of the points presented in that workshop.  Suddenly there were bits of growler-filling information flying around the inter-webs, that weren’t entirely accurate, and seemed to promise growler-filling freedom to everyone!

The problem is that nothing actually changed.  The beer-loving public was lead to believe that a switch had been flipped and suddenly they could bring any container into any brewery and have it filled.  Not so.

First, Jacob’s suggestion about the sticker solution to the growler-labeling problem was just a suggestion, and not something that every California brewery is able to execute or afford, nor that every California brewery agrees with.

Second, there are other legal issues that effect California brewers that were not mentioned in the data-storm of growler-fill misinformation swirling around the blog-o-shpere.

The next speakers at the “Know Your ABC’s” workshop were Lori Ajax, Director of Trade Enforcement for ABC, and Matthew Botting, General Counsel for the ABC.  These are very smart and very important people that dove into some of the details behind Jacob’s statement to further clarify this issue.  Here is a summary of their major points relating to growler fills:

  1. The ABC does not make laws.  The California State Legislature makes laws.  The ABC enforces those laws that relate to the control of alcoholic beverages.  If you want an alcohol-related law (i.e. growler filling) to be changed, you need to talk to your state legislators and work through the normal legislative process.
  2. Owning an ABC license to manufacture, distribute, or sell alcohol in California is a privilege, not a right.
  3. The California ABC Act Code is the section of California State laws that relate to the control of alcoholic beverages, and it is the responsibility of someone owning an ABC license to understand and abide by that code in its entirety.
  4. The ABC Act is a set of permissive laws.  This means that the ABC Act grants permission to act in a manner that is otherwise prohibited.  In other 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 can not do it!

This last point is perhaps the most important and probably the most misunderstood among the beer-loving public. And I suspect that this is the biggest point of contention as California beer drinkers becoming increasingly frustrated with their local brewers’ recent growler-filling policies.  This is completely understandable since, as members of a free, democratic society we’re used to dealing with laws that only prohibit us from doing things.  If a law doesn’t specifically prohibit us from doing something, we assume we are free to do it.

However, when you own an ABC license (remember it’s a privilege, not a right), you are suddenly held to a different standard.

Now, let’s get back to the issue at hand – the “clarified” growler-fill laws…

First, all of us California brewers are scrambling right now, trying to figure out how to proceed.  Every growler-filling beer lover out there is coming into our breweries with only a partial knowledge of the ABC laws that govern us, but a whole lot of entitlement and attitude that we have to fill their growlers from other breweries.  Although the ABC Act does allow for the filling of “growler” containers, no brewery is required to fill any container it doesn’t want to fill.

Second, no California brewers that I’m aware of have adjusted their approved growler labels based on Jacob Appelsmith’s recent statement.  In other words, no one has acted on Jacob’s suggestion about “growler-stickers” for obscuring old brewery information, and displaying new (and approved) brewery information.  And therefore, no brewer that I’m aware of is able to fill any container other than what they are already approved for.

Third, consider the different sizes and shapes of growlers out there.  As a brewer, am I expected to have different sized or shaped stickers for each growler size/shape?  Should I be expected to carry all manner of growler-lids or closures for those different sized/shaped growlers?

Legal matters aside, the most important consideration in this  current growler-filling issue is your relationship to your local brewer.  You really enjoy their beer, and you enjoy supporting their business.  You’re happy with the fact that they work extremely hard to bring you the freshest, most high-quality beer they possibly can.  They’re happy that you enjoy their beer and support all their efforts.  Everyone enjoys being part of a friendly and flourishing industry.

Every brewery is different and will have different policies.  Aside from their legal obligations, these are the policies that make sense to keep them in business and to keep the quality of the beers at the absolute optimum.  If your local brewer declines to fill your growler (bearing their approved label) because it is dirty – respect that decision.  Respect the beer.  Don’t leave your growler dirty, because it can lead to the beer quality in that growler to diminish very quickly.  (And when you review that beer on RateBeer or BeerAdvocate or another site, that will result in lower marks than that beer probably deserves…which would be your fault!).  Don’t expect your local brewer to fill your Nalgene container, or Camelbak.  These are not containers intended for packaging beer and (legal issues aside) will not preserve the quality of that beer in the way the brewer intended.  Again, respect the beer and respect the brewer.

Ultimately (and probably soon), I’m sure the brewers of California will come to a suitable solution to this growler-filling confusion.  For the time being, most brewers I know are staying with the status-quo in order to stay on the right side of the law.  Perhaps some California brewer will have an approved label configuration for other brewers’ growlers. Perhaps the State Legislature will pass a law further clarifying the growler-fill situation.  Until that time though – be patient, dear craft beer lovers – the brewers of California are just as confounded as you, but also have a lot more at risk.  We admire and support our fans just as much as they admire and support us.  At the end of the day, at least we can still share a pint together – whether or not that pint was poured from a growler, a bottle, or a keg!

Cheers!

For more reading on the growler situation, check out these links…

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16 thoughts on “Growler Follies

  1. Thanks for the clarification. I can understand the reluctance. Though I think you, and other breweries, are setting up unneeded obstacles. Those of us who would like to have generic growlers filled are largely interested in this as a matter of practicality. With the ever growing number of breweries out there, a customer would need to reserve precious storage space in his/her home in order to store branded growlers to each individual brewery. Please be reasonable and work with your fellow breweries to come to an agreement that benefits everyone. Don’t underestimate the growing discontent amongst the beer consuming public towards this issue.

  2. ^^ what (s)he said.

    I know of at least one very small brewer in NorCal whose ABC-approved label is a sticker and has been since they opened. They slap their sticker on a blank $4 jug, write the beer name and ABV on it, and you’re good to go. They must have spoken to someone at ABC about it, because I once asked them to fill another brewery’s growler, which they did after covering it in their stickers so the other brewery’s design wasn’t visible. This was two years ago.

    A move to growler-stickers would make everyone’s lives easier. Customers would be able to choose where to buy beer without having to spend $20+ on the pretty jug. Brewers would be able to sell beer to people who are too cheap or visit too occasionally to pay for that jug. I know ERB doesn’t, but most of the breweries I go to both here and in NorCal already use the generic 64oz jugs, albeit with their designs printed on them (e.g. Golden Road).

    As for logistics, there are only a couple styles of 64oz screw-top jugs; it’d be easy enough to stock ‘your’ caps and just refuse to fill any other style brought in without a good cap as well as refusing to fill growlers of odd shapes that can’t be re-labeled or random containers like Nalgene bottles and gasoline cans.

    Standardization in brewing normally leads to stuff like Budweiser… but in this case, I think it’d be good for everyone if breweries were willing to use a sticker on a blank 64oz jug. More people would buy beer to take home, so everyone would be happy–plenty of people don’t get growlers at ERB or Anaheim because they don’t want to pay for the glass.

    • Contrary to popular sentiment, the customer is not always right. The sticker option may be fine for some brewers, but not for all. It’s fine to ask your local brewer to use a sticker, but not fine to demand that they do. Breweries operate under more onerous restrictions than most businesses and they determine for themselves the best way to live with those rules. Growlers are an option on offer to increase sales flexibility, not a mandatory outlet. You buy a growler or you don’t. That’s all there is to it. Growlers are not meant for prolonged storage or long-term shipping and are filled with less shelf-stability measures than bottles off the line. They are meant for near-term local area consumption and the vast majority of growler fills reflect that. The craft brewing trend is built in large part on being the fresh and local beer option and we the beer-drinking public have by and large embraced that, growlers and all. We should rest assured that our favorite brewers are following the rules and wish for their beers to be enjoyed in the best possible circumstances. I for one completely respect that.

      Cheers!

      • Yes, the customer is frequently wrong.

        But you’ve got this all wrong. This is a huge opportunity for breweries. You can frame this all you’d like about demanding customers, but the simple fact is that those are the audience breweries should be attempting to please.

        Yeah it’d be great if people were a bit more understanding, but even better is if breweries take the time to politely explain what they need to be more understanding about, and how said brewery is working to accommodate them.

        It’s not pandering, it’s educating. It shouldn’t be up to the consumer to necessarily go spend their time investigating the entire truth of the matter if they hear: “you can now go get your generic growler filled at a brewery!” That person, far from being an annoyance, is your best possible customer: they’re flocking directly to your brewery to buy your beer. It might get annoying for a brewery to explain to untold number of people each day that while that’s a possibility that might work out, there’s still legwork, licenses, etc. that need to be straightened out before it can happen. So figure out strategies for educating your customers. And figure out how to tell people so that they empathize with your plight, primarily by empathizing with THEIR frustrations.

    • There just aren’t that many growler types to make additional standardization necessary.

      Is it work for the breweries to figure out the logistics? Which growlers can/will they accommodate? What kind of labels will cover most growlers adequately? Of course.

      But consumers are quite clearly saying: yes, we want this.

      So do the work and reap the benefits.

      There might be a lot of complications involved in solving all of the details, but principally, this is not that complicated, and hard to empathize with reluctant brewers on. “You don’t want to work a little bit harder so that you can sell more beer to me?” And very easy to empathize with consumers, who are the ones who suffer under the existing system.

  3. It’s pretty simple really,
    Institute a policy that says…
    “To ensure the best Eagle Rock Brewing beers possible, we will ONLY fill Eagle Rock Brewery branded growlers -or- blank 1 or 2 liter swingtop growlers”

    Get a hang tag approved to attach to the blank growlers and all will be well.

    Forget about trying to cover up other breweries information, too much hassle and headaches. Anybody interested can go to a homebrew shop and grab the blank ones for a couple bucks if they so desire.

  4. Frankly, I think you should have written this after you’d calmed down. There’s a whole lot of information, and a whole lot of attitude that presumes the old way isn’t so bad and that your customers, the people who would like to purchase more of your beer, had better hold their horses.

    Now, that may be true, but your tact is all wrong. Clarifications were made that opened the door for potentially selling our beer to you in unmarked or otherwise labeled growlers! That’s exciting news! That’s great for you, great for us, great great great! Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that, we need to get new labels approved, and figure out how many different common growler types we’ll be able to accommodate at our tiny brewpub, but we’re excited that California’s hopelessly backwards growler laws are finally being looked at in a potentially more permissive light!

    THAT’S how you sell this to the public. But haranguing about whether you even WANT to fill your beer into someone else’s growler, and lecturing in this post about cleanliness, and wondering whether or not you can AFFORD an additional label (and the extra hassle of printing and such) is really in kinda poor form. At the least, you could do a much better job selling this as an opportunity.

    It’s easier to look at the headache and the problems to solve now, but in the long run this is good for you, good for California breweries, and good for consumers. Embrace it, or at least SELL that you’re embracing it, but either way: get on board.

    All that criticism aside, thanks for taking the time to spell out some of the fine details that are getting swept over. But cheer up! And don’t be so upset with those entitled consumers who are trying to pay you their money for the product you sell. There’s a lot of incomplete information out there (if not downright misinformation), tell people that you’re working on a solution and you’ll have it for them soon, and you look forward to the potential opportunity.

    No more rants ending with two paragraphs lecturing people on growler cleanliness when it’s decidedly off topic. If you want people to bring in cleaner growlers, don’t chastise them, EDUCATE them. Make them want to come back with a clean growler, not leave pissed off because you refused and then lectured them.

    • You say they need to educate people. That seems to be exactly what’s going on here. Even beyond that, ERB does a fair amount of educating their customers. They are very accessible, knowledgeable and willing to chat about all things beery.

      • I suppose I should be more specific. They should frame their education in a more friendly and appealing manner. More, “we’re here to help you!” than “stop bringing us on dirty growlers and expecting us to have shit worked out already.”

        It’s the difference between good public relations and mediocre public relations. I like Jeremy, like Eagle Rock, and have nothing but good will and encouragement. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have taken the time to respond. It just frustrates me to no end to see lots of good information being used to highlight things like:

        “no brewery is required to fill any container it doesn’t want to fill.”

        That’s a shitty takeaway message. As is basically everything that’s bolded and highlighted and underline up above.

        I suppose as the rant of a frustrated brewer this works fine. But this is a huge opportunity for brewers (and smaller brewers like Eagle Rock) to capitalize on the situation in a much more positive manner. I am arguing, strenuously, that that’s a much smarter road to take.

        Obviously, they can and will do whatever the hell that they want.

  5. Hey Jeremy, Thanks a lot for doing an extensive write-up on this. This is much clearer and less condescending than some of the other posts I have seen on this. I really appreciate all the information here and the effort taken to put it together!

  6. You still charging $20+ for a growler? Probably the main reason why you’d not want to have any change to the status quo.

    From the understanding of the new seminar, it seems that most California brewers haven’t been filling growlers legally anyway. Without ABV or even the full name on the label – many of which just simply wright an abbreviation, Or for that matter needing a per-approved label for every beer, seems like this causes more problems than it solves.

    It’s really not that difficult to come up with a defined standard in growlers (just say any swing top growler) and you have a set standard. But it seems like you’re dismissing the amount of money to be made with increased growler fills sales simply because you want to make that $20 spot for glassware.

  7. What Josh Sellers said. Thanks for the write-up/information/background Jeremy. I disagree with the posters that suggest that the article was written in a lecturing tone. I’ve never had anything but good/polite service @ ERB. I also think that there are times when customers act entitled (drives me nuts) and could use a lecture (in a nice way of course).

    Standardized growler laws seem to be on the horizon, but in the meantime, it’s really nothing to get too worked up about.

    Cheers.

    • For the record I agree that entitled customers are an annoyance, but there’s two ways to handle them: lecture and education. And you can argue that a lecture is also education, but the tone is decidedly different.

      And for the record, I’m not commenting on the service @ ERB, strictly this one post. But obviously I’m either in the minority, in which case I’m glad more people read this less critically than I do, since my criticism is not with the content, the intent, Jeremy, or the brewery itself, strictly the tone and (my impression) of a missed opportunity.

  8. Greetings from Douglas County, NEVADA. Our County borders California on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. There is one, and sometimes two, brewery on the California side of the line that will fill any growler, regardless of the label. But in Douglas County, any saloon with draft beer can fill any growler. That’s right, it need not be a brewery. Just a bar or a saloon. And the local liquor store on the Nevada side, Dart liquors, has a growler station with six fresh draft beers on tap. And that store will likewise fill any growler. So come up and visit! But never drink and drive.

  9. “As a brewer, am I expected to have different sized or shaped stickers for each growler size/shape? Should I be expected to carry all manner of growler-lids or closures for those different sized/shaped growlers?”

    It works in Oregon (except for the labeling bit) so why do you anticipate it being such a problem here. As you say, breweries still have the right to refuse any container, so when you bring in a milk jug, the brewery can say, “no, it’s dirty” or “no, you have no lid.” So this point actually seems contrary to everything else you have included in this post. Just like anything, you have to educate your customers.

  10. Perhaps there is a universal work-around to the various labeling laws. While certainly, a bar owner or brewer can refuse to fill anything, for any reason, it might be a poor business decision to turn away a growler fill. He loses the sale of the beer and he didn’t sell a new, unnecessary vessel — but I don’t get my draft.
    I bought a couple of growler coozies by mail. Why not just glue a little clear plastic window into the side of the coozie, and the the business card of the bar/brewery could be slipped inside? Darn things could be made in China for less than a buck each, and there could be a second window for the local/federal warnings.

    I’ve really only had a fill problem once, and that was while traveling to a resort. Usually, if I really like the beer, I’m a regular customer and then we know which employees will fill. In our town, all the bars and breweries fill anything.

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