64-ounce beer growlers illegal in Florida, rule viewed as 'bizarre' by beer enthusiasts

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - David Wescott has two 32-ounce growlers he brings into Proof Brewing Company to fill up and take home.

Why two? Because Florida is one of only three states where it's illegal to fill one 64-ounce beer container, known as a growler.

Wescott can get as many of the 32-ounce containers filled as he wants, and Florida breweries can also fill unlimited 128-ounce growlers for customers to take home. But the size preferred by most beer enthusiasts is banned.

"If you're bringing some beer home for you and the wife, that's two beers," Wescott, whose wife calls him a beer snob, said of the quart-sized growlers. "It makes no sense to me. It's just not logical - 128s are probably too much, 32 is too small. I'd love to get a 64."

Two lawmakers have filed bills to legalize the half-gallon jugs, but a group of beer distributors is fighting both measures and appears to have helped effectively kill both for the year.

"It's really silly. I have in my office a 32-ounce, a gallon and a 64 to show people. And I ask them, `Which one do you think is currently illegal?'" said Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation. "They all think the gallon is illegal. They say, `Oh, you're trying to legalize the big one!' and I say, `No, it's the one in the middle,' and it's like, `Why is it not legal?' They don't get it."

And Edwards doesn't even drink beer. She said her only motive in sponsoring her bill is economic development. The half-gallon size growlers are an industry standard and are sold at breweries around the country, helping to expand the small businesses.

Amherst Brewing Company in Massachusetts, which locals call ABC, has gone through three expansions since the pub opened in 1997. Chloe Drew, ABC's bar manager, said that growth has been helped by selling the 64-ounce growlers that fill two refrigerated cases at the front of the restaurant.

"It's really good for small towns because they become a destination and people can bring stuff home from that destination. It's probably only going to bring people back," Drew said, adding that the Florida law is strange because anyone who wants 64 ounces could simply buy two 32-ounce growlers.

The Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents all the state's Anheuser-Busch distributors, is opposing the bill. Its lobbyist, Mitch Rubin, was able to convince Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, not to give it a hearing at the House Business and Professional Regulation Subcommittee she chairs. Without a House hearing, the bill is essentially dead.

Rubin said he is trying to protect the three-tier system of alcohol distribution the federal government set up after Prohibition. It basically ensures that alcoholic products are passed through a distributor to get to retailers. Exceptions have been made, however, for purchases where products are produced, such as buying bottles of wine at a winery.

State law does allow take-home sales at breweries, though Rubin argues that language was meant only to allow sales at Busch Gardens in Tampa when Anheuser-Busch brewed beer at what is now a major theme park. He said it was never intended to allow breweries to sell directly to consumers.

"It's definitely operating in the gray," said Rubin, who said he is not fighting the bill to boost distributers' profits. "There's a little to that, but the larger point is about the three-tier system, and that is our larger concern."

At his urging, Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, tried to add a nearly 12-page amendment to Sen. Jack Latvala's two-line bill. The amendment would have allowed 64-ounce growlers to be sold, but it also would have restricted take-home sales to only the smallest of startup breweries. The Senate Regulated Industries Committee refused to consider the amendment before approving the bill, though Rubin has likely succeeded in halting that measure as well.

Latvala noted that it's hard for beverage laws to be changed because of the powerful lobbying of distributors. He pointed out that it took years for Florida to change a law that only allowed beer cans and bottles in sizes of 8, 12, 16 or 32 ounces. The law, until changed in 2001, kept many imported beers out of Florida because bottles were based on the metric system. Also banned at the time were 22-ounce bottles popular with microbreweries.

"It's the same thing still going on. Those that have the sizes and those that have the distributorships are protecting that," said Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

Brewers say growlers and tasting rooms are an important part of growing business, especially when certain beers aren't readily available in stores. A tasting room at Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, for instance, has helped the business grow from two employees in 2009 to more than 50 now, said owner Joey Redner.

The larger profit margins on beer sold at Florida breweries helps them reinvest the money to produce more beer, which creates more jobs. Unlike beer giants such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, which have automated systems

that allow a few people to brew massive amounts of beer, craft brewing is labor intensive. In order to brew more, small breweries have to hire more people.

Redner said he believes the wholesalers association is opposing the growler bill to protect its profits, as growlers and brewery tasting rooms help craft brewers expand their market presence.

"Ninety-nine percent of their business is a large, foreign-owned company that makes 100 million barrels of beer. That's where their bread and butter is. These craft breweries, that's not what's keeping the lights on for them," Redner said. "If they can shut the tasting rooms down, they can get rid of some the competition."

The Beer Industry of Florida, which counts MillerCoors distributors among its members, supports allowing the 64-ounce growlers because the industry group doesn't see the jugs as a threat to the three-tier system, said BIF president Eric Criss.

The current rules can be frustrating for out-of-state tourists accustomed to the 64-ounce growlers. Luke Kemper, the owner of Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville, said more and more often people visiting from other states are told their 64-ounce growlers can't be filled. Likewise, if they buy a 32- or 128-ounce growler, they probably can't fill them when they get home.

Chris Lashway of Fredericksburg, Va., recently stopped at Proof Brewing in Tallahassee while on his way to South Florida. He likes visiting microbreweries and said he would have liked to buy a 64-ounce container so there would be more to share with his hosts. Instead, he ordered a quart of red ale.

"It is very bizarre," he said of the rules.

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