Thursday, January 16, 2014

Beer brewers and distributors at odds over growler legislation

Craft beer is booming, but will the political machinations of industry heavyweights flatten the market?

Posted By on Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 2:40 PM

FILLING STATION: Bartender Don Arscott fills 32-oz. and 128-oz. (1 gallon) containers at Cigar City Tasting Room’s growler bar.
  • Chip Weiner
  • FILLING STATION: Bartender Don Arscott fills 32-oz. and 128-oz. (1 gallon) containers at Cigar City Tasting Room’s growler bar.

Florida’s craft brewing scene has flourished in recent years, with new breweries and brewpubs opening up or expanding at a dizzying rate in the Tampa Bay area over the last half-year alone. With that explosive growth, tensions have grown between the burgeoning industry and the Big Beer establishment.

The differences are epitomized by what we’ll call the growler wars.

A growler is a reusable bottle filled at the tap at craft brewers’ tasting rooms, allowing customers to take the beer home with them. The dispute in Florida is about size: 32-ounce growlers are fine in the Sunshine State, but 64-ouncers are banned. Florida is one of only three states in the nation — the others are Texas and Oklahoma — to have such a ban in place. Last year, Clearwater state Senator Jack Latvala introduced a bill that would have made the larger size legal.

The growler wars have been depicted in various publications (including this one) as a fight between the cool, indie-oriented craft brewers and the stuffier beer establishment, represented in Tallahassee by the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, an association of 25 independent distributors. Not only did that group oppose the growlers, it also helped shape an amendment to Latvala’s straightforward bill that would have severely slowed the growth of tasting rooms, restricting take-home sales to only the smallest of startup breweries. That amendment died in committee, as did the original bill to allow 64-ounce growlers.

Naturally this created some negative feelings among the craft beer contingent toward the FBWA.
But last month, during an interview at Largo-based Great Bay Distributors, FBWA Executive Director Mitch Rubin made the surprising assertion that, contrary to popular opinion, his organization actually is not against the 64-ounce growler. Seated around a large conference table with several officials from Great Bay, which distributes beer to Pinellas, West Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, Rubin said their sole focus now is not on growlers, but on preventing craft brewery tasting rooms from selling beer not brewed on their premises.
“Look, part of our problem last year in our opposition is we had to look like a bunch of doofuses arguing against a 64-ounce container because we can’t tell the world that the law is unclear,” Rubin says.

He went on to say that for strategic and tactical reasons his association “had to be” opposed to the 64-ounce growler, but that his concerns are more existential — that craft breweries are selling products other than their own homegrown brews via so-called “guest taps,” which are anathema to the FBWA. Because to Rubin, that means those establishments are now retailers instead of just brewers, wreaking havoc on the three-tier system.

Let’s stop right there. Unless you’re in the industry, you might not know what the three-tier system is, so let’s review:

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