ST. PETERSBURG — Bartender Lizz Hutcherson is serving more happy customers lately at Green Bench Brewing Co.
Until two weeks ago, she had to turn away out-of-staters toting growlers, upset they couldn't fill the large containers with 64 ounces of the local flavor.
"It would happen for me at least twice a week," she said. "A lot of eye rolls."
Now, a new state law allowing sales and refills of the 64-ounce containers is not only quenching customers' thirsts but also helping brewers at the cash registers.
Before this year, Florida had already legalized 32-ounce and 128-ounce growlers, but the 64-ounce growler remained illegal. On July 1, Florida became the 50th state to legalize that size, regarded by many in the industry as the perfect size for consumers.
Being a laggard in adopting growlers and other industry standards, critics say, is one reason Florida's craft-brewing industry has less economic impact per capita than any other state's. Statistics from the Brewers Association, a national trade group, give a hint of what Florida could become: In Oregon, Colorado and California, hundreds of craft brewers pump out millions of barrels of beer each year and billions of dollars into their state economy.
Growlers keep beer good for only a day once they are opened, so finishing 128 ounces, or 8 pints, was a tall task for many. The 32-ounce option holds about two pints of beer.
"People just could not wrap their heads around why the 64-ounce growler was illegal," Hutcherson said.
She recalled a time when a customer bought two 32-ounce growlers of Green Bench beer, took the growlers just off brewery property and then poured them into one 64-ounce growler.
Local craft beer aficionados are celebrating the change. On a Saturday night at Green Bench, 64-ounce growlers are conspicuous.
John Austin of St. Petersburg sits by the growler he bought his friend Shawn Witt.
"I'm pretty happy with the change," Austin said, noting how the reusable growlers are green-friendly.
"The growlers ensure a regular clientele," Witt agreed.
Luigi Verzura and Natalie Beiter of Tampa said they were happy to have a growler that allows them to store enough beer for both of them.
"It was always kind of a weird rule," Verzura said.
Though too early to gauge the economic impact of the growler law, some local breweries are seizing the opportunity more than others.
The day the law changed, Cigar City Brewing in Tampa quickly sold out of 64 commemorative ceramic growlers marked, "July 1." Owner Joey Redner said he has seen growler sales shoot up, with 50 percent of all growler sales now coming from the 64-ounce container.
Meanwhile, Tara Frenck, manager of Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg, said that although the brewery won't order any new-sized growlers, it will fill the growlers that customers bring in.
Nathan Stonecipher, who owns Green Bench, said the rule change made better business sense, but it went beyond that.
"It was really about doing away with antiquated rules that really, in our mind, didn't make much logical sense," he said.
The 64-ounce growler has few, if any, detractors. So, why did it take so long for the law to change?
Those in the craft beer industry say the debate over the growler symbolized a larger, yearslong regulatory struggle between craft brewers and the large beer distributors.
"It was a way to put the squeeze on smaller breweries," Green Bench bartender Matt O'Connell said.
But when the dust settled after this year's legislative session, craft breweries finally had gained some important wins in Tallahassee. The growler bill also contained a provision allowing each brewery to have up to eight statewide tasting rooms. Before, breweries' tasting rooms had to operate within something of a loophole.
Craft beer industry insiders still consider some Florida laws to be unnecessarily restrictive. A brewer still must sell its beer to a distributor if it wants customers to have access to its product outside brewery grounds.
"There will always be things that we're working on in Tallahassee to make it a truly free market for the brewing business," Stonecipher said.
Regulators say this three-tiered system of manufacturers selling to retailers who, in turn, sell to customers helps maintain public health.
Despite these obstacles, Stonecipher said he was happy about the current craft beer "explosion" in Florida.
Whether craft beer will stay trendy remains to be seen. One thing is certain: Citizens of Florida can now fill 64-ounce containers with beer without risking arrest.
"We were happy with how things turned out," Stonecipher said. "This was a step in the right direction for the craft brewing industry."
Contact Kirby Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kirbywilson88.