In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Fighting for our virtue, one growler at a time

It’s so good to know that on this most beery of American holidays, our backyard celebrations won’t be menaced by evil growlers of craft beer. Not in Florida, anyway.

Our ever-vigilant state legislators have made sure that these subversive, unpatriotic 64-ounce jugs can’t be smuggled into Florida homes, corrupting our very way of life.

Beer can be hauled away from craft breweries in 32-ounce containers. Or in gallon jugs. But 64-ounce growlers? No! No! No! That would be wrong.

It would also be inconvenient for the Florida Beer Wholesalers Association, which has invested a substantial amount of money making sure that the Florida Legislature puts the interests of Big Beer — think Bud — ahead of these nuisance small-time breweries that have been popping up across the state.

The wholesalers association has been credited with snuffing out legislation last spring that would have lifted the state’s peculiar prohibition of 64-ounce take-home growlers, which is pretty much the national standard for the burgeoning craft brew industry. After a bit of behind-the-scene arm twisting, Rep. Katie Edwards’ 64-ounce legalization bill was consigned to oblivion — no hearing, no vote — in the House Business and Professional Regulation Subcommittee. (At the time Edwards, a Plantation Democrat, was obviously miffed, but she was taking a conciliatory stance Wednesday. “With time, I believe the issue will be resolved.”)

Florida Beer Wholesalers claimed it was only protecting the sacred “three tiered” system Florida adopted after prohibition, designed to forever separate the manufacture, distribution and retail sales of alcohol Because, without the three tiers, the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano would be peddling beer growlers out behind Florida’s elementary schools.

Besides, Big Beer claims that Florida craft breweries, with their chichi tasting rooms and take-away sales, were exploiting a loophole in an old Florida law originally intended to allow beer sales only at Busch Gardens (as in Anheuser-Busch, the beer giant devoured by the Belgium beer conglomerate InBev in 2008).

So I asked the brew expert Evan Benn, a Miami Herald reporter better known as the online beer columnist for Esquire Magazine (and as the former beer critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch). Evan knows all about the Florida growler controversy. “I was actually reading up on the latest last night while enjoying a Florida craft-brewed cedar-aged Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City. This move was definitely aimed at small brewers.”

He added, “No one who owns a growler (myself included) goes out looking to fill it with Bud Light or Coors. It’s the way craft breweries and brewpubs — many of which don’t yet have the capital to package their beers in bottles or cans — get their beers out to the public in a convenient, affordable way.”

By Cigar City, Benn was referring to Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, described as a “15 barrel [one barrel is 31 gallons] brewhouse occupying 6,600 sq. ft. of warehouse space” with 19 nineteen fermentors and 52 employees. Vice President Justin Clark told me Wednesday that he’s pretty sure the Big Beer boys were mostly interested in tamping down competition from upstart breweries while they’re still upstarts.

Clark described “just how ridiculous” it is trying to explain to his customers why his take-away brews can be sold in the too small 32-ounce bottles or too-big gallon jugs (which can’t be consumed by anyone but a ferocious drunk before the beer goes flat) but not in the perfect 64-ounce growlers that are legal in 38 other states. (Where they haven’t yet set off a beery apocalypse.)

It might be easier to accept Big Beer’s supposed selfless interest in maintaining the public good if the state’s distributors hadn’t spent years fighting to keep a 1965 law intact that restricted the sale of beer to 8-, 12-, 16- or 32-ounce bottles. The effect was to ban the sale of foreign beers in their metric-sized bottles, along with a number of bottled craft beers from other states, in Florida. Before that law was finally discarded in 2001, Florida offered only 648 labels compared to the 4,300 sold nationwide.

State legislators feign an affection for free-market principles, but not, apparently, when it comes to the sale of alcoholic beverages. The state clung desperately to a ban on mail-order sales by out-of-state wineries until a federal judge tossed the law in 2005. Of course, this had nothing to do with Florida wine distributors and their lobbyists beating back competition. They only wanted to prevent the awful specter of underaged drinkers consuming Opus One by the caseload.

A kind of miracle legislation was passed this past session and signed into law June 25 that allows the state’s craft distilleries to sell their artisan liquors on site.

It passed, improbably, but not before industry lobbyists wangled an amendment that insures these tourist-oriented operations will never pose a threat to the big boys. The new law limits purchases to only two bottles at a time.

Of course, Floridians can still waltz into a liquor store and buy all the Grey Goose or Jack Daniels or Canadian Club or Captain Morgan they wish. But the state lawmakers wanted to make sure that our Florida way of life wasn’t compromised by these damn small-batch distilleries — small, fledgling, locally owned businesses that make only piddling campaign contributions, that can’t afford lobbyists.

Besides, if lawmakers allow Floridians to buy more than two bottles of artisan rum or bourbon or vodka, next thing you know, they’ll be washing down the stuff with craft beer poured from those awful growlers.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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