Florida Politics

Growler-beer bill passes after three years of debate in Florida Legislature

In this Friday, March 29, 2013 file photo, patron Adam Rudell, of St. Petersburg, Fla., sits with two gallon-sized jugs of beer, known among beer enthusiasts as growlers, at the Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville, Fla.
In this Friday, March 29, 2013 file photo, patron Adam Rudell, of St. Petersburg, Fla., sits with two gallon-sized jugs of beer, known among beer enthusiasts as growlers, at the Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville, Fla. AP

After a battle that lasted three years and pumped more than $1 million to lobbyists, craft breweries will soon be allowed to sell their beer in half-gallon growlers.

On Friday, the Florida House voted unanimously to legalize the 64-ounce, refillable jugs, which, though a standard size in the industry, have long been illegal in this state. The Senate approved the legislation (SB 186) last week, and it now awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

“This day has been a long time coming,” Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said on the floor Friday. “It was a lot harder than it should have been, and a lot of you have lived through this craziness with me.”

The distinction between a growler and other container sizes — Florida law allows bottles up to 32 ounces and more than 128 ounces — might seem innocuous.

Craft brewers, however, see the growler, which is legal in every state except Florida, as important to growth. Yet the bill passed Friday does more than allow craft brewers and certain retailers to sell jugs of beer, although that’s where the debate started three years ago.

Beginning July 1, breweries would also be allowed to open up to eight tap rooms, where customers can sample beer, buy a pint, or fill their growlers. Brewers have been doing this for some time by way of an exemption in state law meant to encourage tourism.

“The growler [is] a moot point; it should be allowed,” said Byron Burroughs, owner of Proof Brewing in Tallahassee and vice president of the Florida Brewers Guild board. “This is really about putting down all of the attacks on our tasting rooms and all of the attempts to limit what we could do and try to restrict the growth of the craft brewing industry.”

Opponents of looser regulations have throughout the debate raised concerns that specifically allowing breweries to sell directly to consumers would undermine the state’s regulatory structure for alcohol, commonly called the three-tiered system.

Eric Criss, of the Beer Industry of Florida, said his members have “mixed feelings” about the passage. While the bill’s exceptions to the three-tiered system aren’t dramatic, the state should be cautious about further exceptions to regulatory structures, he said..

“A lot of these rules we have are good public policy that exist for a good reason, which is to protect the public,” he said. “From this point forward, the state should take a slow approach.”

Florida craft brewers say tap rooms and growlers will help them build on a still-nascent industry. The Florida Brewers Guild hopes to see more breweries open and grow the almost 100 breweries open in the state now.

To get to this point, advocates on both sides of the debate have spent millions of dollars. Often, the Florida Brewers Guild has been pitted against heavily moneyed interests like beer distributors and even Anheuser Busch, which has spent about $800,000 on lobbyists from 2012-2014, according to estimates filed with the state.

The brewers have had lobbyists in the legislative process, too, including Steve Schale, who represents Intuition Ale Works in Jacksonville

“In this process, it’s been bandwidth,” Schale said. “They can hire 40 or 50 lobbyists, and they’re able to constantly be tweaking, leaning on relationships and doing the things you do when you have a large lobby team.”

He said the bill wouldn’t have been passed without legislative heavyweights on the brewers’ side. Indeed, though sponsored in the House by freshman Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, craft-beer legislation has been pushed by Young, the House majority leader, and Senate presidential hopeful Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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