Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Who's afraid of big bad beer?

More on the battle for growler legalization in Florida.

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2013 at 10:21 AM

Joey Redner, founder of Cigar City Brewing, a start-up brewery based out of Tampa, Fla.
  • Todd Bates
  • Joey Redner is the founder of Cigar City Brewing, a startup brewery based out of Tampa, Fla.

Florida craft brewers got nowhere with this year's Legislature in their quest to change the state's bizarre growler laws (a quart or a gallon: legal; a half-gallon: illegal).

And now, as the Tampa Tribune reported Saturday, the Big Beer lobby wants to redefine the issue in a way that would undermine craft brewers just as they are gaining a foothold (and creating jobs).

The state's most influential beer distributor lobby (allied with AB-InBev) is taking aim at the primary source of revenue fueling the state's craft beer renaissance: tasting rooms. Florida has allowed brewery tasting rooms ever since Busch Gardens wanted one to hand out free Budweiser. Nearly every craft brewery has one, selling directly to consumers (and boosting profit margins). Cigar City's tasting room helped fuel its growth and virtually every other subsequent startup brewery has following that model.

And make no mistake: Most of Florida's craft breweries are startups, some with just two or three employees. Even Cigar City, launched with two people four years ago, has grown to only a little more than 50 staffers today, including its recently opened brewpub. These are delicate times for the small family-run businesses.

But the beer lobby sees tasting rooms as a threat to the post-Prohibition three-tier system by allowing direct sales between brewer and consumer (even though some of these same companies distribute beer from breweries that have tasting rooms). Going after tasting rooms not only preserves the Big Beer lobby's lucrative middle man role, but it distracts the politically-less-influential craft brewing lobby from pursuing the legalization of the industry standard 64-ounce growler (reusable glass containers for draft beer to go).

Nearly every story you read about growlers includes a similar definition. This further illustrates part of the dilemma for craft brewers: most people don't know what the heck a growler is. With so little public awareness, craft brewers have an uphill battle. Besides, they have yet to offer up concrete examples of how the law is hurting them, since two 32 ounce growlers can be more convenient than one 64 ounce. And people are flocking to their tasting rooms anyway.

So maybe it's their turn to redefine the debate.

Forget size for now. First, get growlers in the hands of more people. If a liquor store in South Carolina can sell draft beer to go and bars and restaurants in Virginia can sell growlers, why does Florida restrict them to only breweries? If more people had the chance to try growlers — and not just the tiny percentage of visiting breweries— they might like them. And if bars, restaurants, grocers (Whole Foods sells growlers in other states) and liquor stores (growlers at your local ABC!) could cash in, the craft brewers would have more allies in their legalize-the-64 fight with Big Beer. Besides, the distributors might see some profits, too.

When I run this idea past craft beer people they worry about quality. Filling growlers properly is important, they say, and some places won't do it correctly and a lot of consumers won't know the difference. That may be true, but it seems minor compared to getting growlers in the hands more Floridians.

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