Growlers – Q&A

Why is it that while some breweries sell growlers, others don’t? Why do some breweries refill used growlers while many breweries only sell beer filled in their own growlers? Why do some retail stores sell growlers but most do not?

To answer these questions, we must wade into the deep, dark confines of the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act (ABC Act), which comprises the Business and Professions Code and the Code of Regulations. If you are looking for some nighttime reading to put you to sleep, you can find it on the ABC website. The ACB code is the legal statute by which manufacturers, distributors and retailers of alcoholic beverages must abide. The rules of the road, so to speak. And remember, that alcohol beverage regulations vary state to state. While some states allow just about anything (Oregon allows retailers to fill an empty mason jar if they choose), some states have very strict laws governing the sales of growlers. California lies somewhere in between. 

In the 1800′s pails were used to transport beer from the tavern to the home or the workplace.

A good starting point when contemplating all things growler is to note that the term doesn’t even exist in the California ABC code. The growler is considered a “container” by the ABC, just as a bottle or keg, and has no special meaning or separate set of rules.

To answer our first question, some beer manufactures simply choose not to sell growlers. They may be so small that they sell all of their beer in pints through the tasting room. Some craft breweries don’t have a tasting room or retail store and instead sell everything through a wholesaler. Some simply may not make enough beer. So although most craft breweries do sell growlers, some do not. This is by choice, not because of regulatory constraints.

Addressing the second question regarding the refilling of growlers is more complex. Prior to last year, the ABC did not allow breweries to refill a growler from another brewery. For a variety of reasons, the ABC recently reinterpreted the regulations and they now allow a beer manufacturer (holder of an ABC type 01 or type 23 license) to refill for sale any sealable container (such as growlers) as long as specific regulatory guidelines are met. AB 647 (Chesbro) which passed the legislature last year and was signed into law by the Governor affirms the right for a beer manufacturer to refill previously used growlers (as long as labeling requirements are met).

Just like a bottle of beer, all growlers must have an affixed label that has been approved by the ABC and meets all of the state’s labeling requirements. The container must also be sealable (screw top, cork, flip top, etc.) to distinguish it from a glass of beer or other open container. And most notably, any and all information pertaining to another beer manufacturer other than the one filling and selling the container must be removed or obscured. This last requirement is sometimes difficult to accomplish. When a consumer brings an empty growler that was previously filled and labeled by Brewery A into Brewery B to be refilled, Brewery B must completely remove or obscure any and all information from Brewery A. No easy task. This can be time-consuming for a bartender at a busy tasting room. It can also be very difficult to obscure etched or painted labels. Thus, brewers may not be able to comply with label requirements of refilling certain growlers.

Perhaps of greatest concern for many breweries is the cleanliness of the growler. Craft breweries take great pride in their products. It is of utmost importance that the quality and integrity of the beer they produce be maintained from the time it leaves the brewery until the moment it is consumed. The cleanliness, functionality and integrity of the growler are critical, and not all growlers are created equal. Cheaper growlers do not seal well the second time they are filled, and some growlers have thin glass that will not withstand certain filling methods. The cleanliness of the container when it is brought in for refill is also a big concern. It may not be practical for the filling brewery to take the time to ensure that each growler they refill is properly cleaned and sanitized.

Add up all of these issues and you have a lot of good reasons that many craft brewers choose not to refill growlers previously filled by another brewery. Refilling growlers is a great way for consumers to sample beers from different breweries in an affordable way and offers an environmentally favorable method of doing so. But in many situations it simply isn’t practical or may diminish the quality of the beer.

Our final question about retailers selling growlers is easy. Retailers are allowed to sell growlers, but they cannot fill growlers. Only a licensed beer manufacturer may fill a container with beer. Retailers can buy growlers either directly from a brewery or through a licensed wholesaler and more retailers will likely sell growlers as brewers develop better filling methods that will allow for a longer shelf life (similar to bottles).

For a more detailed explanation of refilling and other growler details, see the “Growler Clarification” on our web site here.