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Lawmakers, Businesses Move To Sell Beer in Growlers

Refillable containers would allow beer enthusiasts to buy micro brews and seasonal ales that aren't bottled by distributors.

When Maryland breweries create limited edition or seasonal beers, enthusiasts in Annapolis often have to visit restaurants or bars to taste them.

That's because small brewers known as micro brewers will often opt against bottling or canning speciality craft beers to save on costs.

"Over the years we have listened to different small businesses tell us they are a micro brewer, and they are having a hard time getting their name out there," Del. Cathy Vitale (R-Severna Park) said. "The opportunity to taste anything is limited."

Maryland law restricts bottling draft beer in refillable glass bottles called growlers to breweries.

That restriction could change by July 1—at least in Annapolis and Anne Arundel County—where state lawmakers are backing bills to expand growler sales to liquor stores and bars with Class D liquor licenses.

The growlers would be allowed to hold up to 128 ounces or 1 gallon of beer.

"I’ve traveled around the country around a lot this year; this idea is not unique to this market," said Chuck Ferrar, owner of Bay Ridge Wine and Spirits.

In fact, Howard County and Baltimore City have already passed legislation permitting growler sales at locations other than breweries.

He urged Anne Arundel County's House Delegation to support two house bills, which would allow liquor stores in Anne Arundel County and Annapolis to sell and refill customers’ growlers with draft beers.

Annapolis needed its own legislation, which is sponsored by Del. Ron George (R-Arnold), because the city has its own liquor board.

"This bill helps brewers in certain ways also because they don’t have to worry about the bottling, the canning or the distributing," George said.

John Fisher, the owner of Staples Corner Liquor in Crofton, agreed.

"This gives the micro brewer another outlet for his product," Fisher said. "It’s going to help my business, but it’s going to help the micro beer business even more."

Fisher and Ferrar said micro brews and craft brews are the fastest growing part of their business.

"Everybody knows about the wine geeks, but I’ll tell you my beer guys are beer freaks," Ferrar said.

One concern raised about the proposed laws for Anne Arundel was who would be responsible for making sure the refillable containers were clean and sanitary when customers brought them back for a refill.

"The labeling ... on the back of the bottle says the consumer is responsible for the hygiene of the bottle," Reilly said.

Fisher added that a wet growler foams less than a dry growler, and he intends to rinse each one before refilling.

County Liquor Board Administrator Judy Hagner noted that liquor stores might also have to pass an inspection from the health department before selling draft beers.

"A lot of your packaged good stores are not licensed by the health department," Hagner said.

The only reservation Fisher had about the proposed law is the restriction it places on who can refill each growler. The law would require each liquor store or bar to label their growlers and only refill those bottles.

"When people come in the door on July 1 and ask me to fill up their growler, it's going to cause a lot of confusion," Fisher said.

Growler bottles range in price from $5 to $30 and beyond. Fisher said buying multiple growlers and making sure to bring the right bottle to the right retailer is going to cause a lot of unnecessary headaches.

"We didn’t want people bringing in milk cartons; we didn’t want Pepsi bottles," Reilly said. "We crafted [the bill] in such a way that the identifier is clearly visible to the retailer."

The senator is open to discussing an amendment in the future that would define growlers and permit retailers to refill a competitor's jug. Right now though, he's focused on passing the initial law for Anne Arundel County.

Ferrar said if the bill passes, he plans to have a dozen beers on tap in his liquor store this summer.

The two house bills will have hearings before the Economic Matters Committee at 1 p.m. Feb. 25. Reilly’s Senate Bill will have a hearing before the Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee at 2 p.m. on Tuesday.

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