Long before growlers became a standard option in Florida's bars, breweries and even retail stores, these refillable, portable containers were a contentious issue in the state's growing beer scene. Consumers, bars and breweries all wanted to know: Why can we have 32-ounce and 128-ounce growlers, but not the industry-standard 64-ounce size used outside Florida?
The stakes were raised in the debate this month, as bills were introduced in the House and Senate that would allow 64-ounce growlers in Florida — with a catch.
It started with HB1329, sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers. The bill gave a specific definition of a growler, allowing both 32-ounce and 64-ounce sizes. But there were other restrictions that some saw as detrimental to the growth of craft beer in Florida. These included prohibitions of 128-ounce growlers, producing cider at a brewery without a winery license, selling non-growler (bottled) beer in a brewery's tasting room and offering guest taps at a brewery tasting room without first purchasing the guest beer through a distributor.
When it was revealed that Rodrigues received financial support from several Florida-based MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev distributors a month before filing his bill, the conversation took on an adversarial tone: craft beer versus politically powerful distributors.
To Ben Davis, owner of Jacksonville's Intuition Ale Works, HB 1329 seemed vindictive. "We're literally just trying to change the law to allow us to sell the industry-standard growler, and their response is, 'Sure, but we're going to crush you in the process,' " he said.
Mitch Rubin, executive director for the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, an organization that represents 24 beer distributors in Florida, including the ones that provided financial support to Rodrigues, offered a different perspective.
"All of my members distribute craft beer," Rubin said. "They all market, advertise and clean the lines for these local craft beers just like they do the other beers. The idea that, somehow, distributors are against craft beer is just very inaccurate. We're not against a 64-ounce container, and we're not against a tap room at the brewery. Our issue is that you collapse the three-tier system when you permit a brewer to act entirely like a retailer."
The three-tier system states that a business can operate as a brewery, a retailer or a distributor, but it cannot act in more than one of those roles. As a result, breweries must sell their beer through distributors, with a loophole known as the "tourism exemption" that allows for on-site tasting rooms. Rubin argues that the three-tier system is necessary to regulate the alcohol trade in Florida, as well as to offer a level playing field for those involved in its manufacture and sale.
"A lot depends on your perspective about the sale and promotion, and the consumption of, alcohol in our society," Rubin noted. "The legislature believes that the three-tier system is valuable to society. The focus tends to be on the middle tier, which is intentional, to separate the retailer from the brewer, so that the brewer cannot dominate the retailer. What we're trying to do is support the craft beer industry but at the same time maintain the three-tier system.
"It's not just beer, it's all segments of alcohol," he said. "What I think society learns is that (without the three-tier system) its overpromotion, overconsumption, lack of controls, lack of ability to efficiently collect taxes — all of the things they learned that led to Prohibition — are repeated.
Davis, however, has doubts about such motivations.
"Now they're protecting public health and the three-tier system. Next year it will be something else."
On Monday, HB 1329 passed, but only after a strike-all amendment was approved, eliminating nearly all of the measures opposed by its critics. On Wednesday, the Senate version, SPB 1720, also passed, with a similar amendment removing much of the contested language of that bill.
The future of growlers in Florida remains up in the air, but the climate has changed dramatically. A question that once seemed simple has become a complex exploration of alcohol production and sales in Florida. As amended versions of HB 1329 and SPB 1720 move through committees, the quest for a half-gallon growler may prove to be a catalyst for much larger issues. — [email protected]