Published November 26, 2013
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There are three growlers perched above the tap handles at Intuition Ale Works. One of the beer jugs holds 32 ounces, another 64, and the largest 128. Two of them can be sold lawfully in Florida; the third has a handwritten sign saying "Legalize it" as it sits on display at the brewery. And it's probably not the one you'd guess.
Customers can have as many of the largest containers, with a full gallon, or the smallest jugs, with a quart, filled as they please. It's the half-gallon growler — a 64-ounce container that's popular from coast to coast — that's illegal, thanks to Florida's history of odd bottle laws.
"It's such a stupid law," said Ben Davis, owner of Intuition Ale Works. "You can come in here and buy a gallon, you can buy a quart, you can buy two quarts, but I can't sell you a half-gallon. And it's the industry standard. You go to Colorado, you go to a brewery there and say 'Hey, I want a growler of X beer,' they don't ask you, 'Hey! Do you want it in a quart or do you want it in a gallon?'"
After several years of trying, the next legislative session could be the one that sees containers made legal, joining 47 other states that allow half-gallon growlers. That is, if the jugs don't get tangled up in more complicated issues surrounding Florida's fast-growing craft beer industry.
Florida now restricts beer sales to containers of 32 ounces or less, or 128 ounces or more — but nothing in between. Before 2001, beer in Florida could be sold only in cans and bottles of 8, 12, 16 or 32 ounces.
Last spring a bill that would have legalized the half-gallon growlers died when Rep. Debbie Mayfield refused to bring it up for a vote in the House Business and Professional Regulation Subcommittee, which she chairs. It's not that she has a problem with growlers, she said, but rather she wants to address the craft beer industry as a whole in an effort to help it grow.
"That industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, and in Florida we just want to make sure we get our share," Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, said. "We just want to make sure that we aren't going to get road-blocked."
And that means looking at issues including bonding, taxes, distribution, licenses and contractual agreements with distributors, as well as legalization of half-gallon growlers.
Brewers would absolutely like to see some changes in distribution laws. For example, a brewery cannot sell beer wholesale directly to a retailer — it has to go through a distributor.
"If a guy across the street wants a keg of your beer, is it really rational for (a distributor) to have to pick up the beer, drive it to a facility that's bonded 100 miles away and then bring it back over to move it six feet? It doesn't make a lot of sense," said Josh Aubuchon, executive director of the Florida Brewers Guild.
But while brewers say they believe Mayfield's intentions are good, they want to take care of their easiest priority first. They don't want the legalization of half-gallon growlers to become part of what could become a major battle with distributors.
Tinkering too much with the three-tier system of alcohol distribution the federal government set up after Prohibition could incite that fight. The system essentially ensures that alcoholic products are passed through a distributor to get to retailers. Exceptions have been made for purchases where drinks are produced, such as buying bottles of wine at a winery.
State law does allow for tasting rooms and take-home sales at breweries, though the language was originally meant to allow sales at Busch Gardens in Tampa. There, Anheuser-Busch brewed beer at what is now a major theme park. The law is now applied to dozens of small Florida breweries.
"We probably should stick to some of the more basic issues initially. Baby steps," said Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, who is working to legalize growlers. "So we pass the growler, hopefully this year, perhaps clear up some of the ambiguities in the existing law relating to breweries and tasting rooms and brew pubs, but not do anything that's way out there."
That would be fine with distributors, said Mitch Rubin, executive director of the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association.
"We support 64-ounce containers, and we support tasting rooms," said Rubin. He said the group wants the bill on the containers to also address their sanitization as well as standards for labels and sealing.
And, of course, beer lovers also hope for a change in the law.
"They have the big ones and the little ones, but I really want the intermediate ones," Mason LeTellier said as his gallon growler filled with Double Overhead IPA at Green Room Brewing in Jacksonville Beach. "I usually don't want the whole gallon. I end up drinking more than I want because I don't want it to go bad."
He called the ban on the half-gallon growler "kind of dumb."
"I would love to have the 64-ounce," he said. "The small one's fine if you're home alone, but if you have someone over, it's not enough."