Beer Run

Beer Run: Despite new law, refills for third-party growlers still hit and miss

If you’ve been to craft breweries in recent years, you’ve probably seen it. A customer waits in line, finally gets to the front, plops his or her growler onto the counter and is turned away because the 64-ounce container did not bear the label of that particular brewery.

That’s not happening nearly as much these days, thanks to a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown at Track 7 Brewing in October, where he later joined regulars in a pint of one of Sacramento’s tastiest brews.

Taking effect Jan. 1, the law (AB 647) clarifies the language for labeling and refilling third-party growlers at breweries. Requirements include covering a growler’s old label (using opaque tape is OK) and providing a new label that’s been approved by the Alcohol Beverage Control with specified information (identification of brewery, name of beer, etc.)

A brief explainer if you’re new to the subject. A growler is a refillable container, usually with certain industry standards. They’re most often 64 ounces, but they come in other sizes, too. It’s a great way to get fresh beer from your favorite brewery and take it home. It’s also a good deal for consumers – the beer generally pencils out to half the price you’d pay at the taproom if you ordered beer by the pint.

Until the recent law change, many breweries were reluctant to refill third-party containers because of unclear legal issues and, on occasion, customers were frustrated. If you had a bunch of favorite breweries, you had to have a bunch of different growlers.

However, even with the passage of the new law, some breweries still refuse to fill growlers purchased elsewhere.

Not so long ago, we received an email from a perplexed Sandy Cosner.

“So is the Christmas gift from my son ... a growler from Great Lakes Brewing (Cleveland), destined to remain a decorative item on my kitchen counter unless I move out of CA?”

Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association, explained why growler reuse continues to be hit and miss.

“Breweries are allowed to refill growlers from another brewery (with restrictions), but many (I would say most) choose not to. This is mainly due to concern over the cleanliness of the growler. Brewers know that growlers they provide are clean, and when their own growler comes in for a refill, they can exchange for a clean one,” McCormick writes. “... Most brewers are just as concerned about the branding of their beer as they are about just ‘selling more beer.’ A growler wrapped in duct tape with a label slapped over it just doesn’t work for most craft brewers.”

But wait. We’ve found several local breweries willing to play ball, among them Track 7, of course. Ryan Graham, the brewmaster, says 64-ounce refills range from $12 to $20 depending on the beer.

Berryessa Brewing in Winters has even made special stickers to put its name on third-party growlers. Co-owner Lori Nicolini Miller says she and others at her brewery were frustrated that they had been unable to fill non-Berryessa growlers “because if someone has a nice growler, you shouldn’t have to buy a new one. We want to sell beer, we don’t want to sell glass.”

It’s best to call ahead and check the brewery’s policy if you plan to get a refill.

Before he became co-founder of Bike Dog Brewing in West Sacramento, A.J. Tendick was an avid craft beer consumer – which meant he pretty much had to have a bunch of growlers. Breweries generally charge $6 for a new growler. Bike Dog is now filling third-party ones.

“Maybe because we are fresh to the game and are still thinking like a consumer, but my shelf of a dozen growlers is stupid. It’s wasteful, takes up space and no one sees them, so it doesn’t matter what’s printed, ” he said.

So there’s your answer, Sandy. That Christmas gift from your son in Cleveland can now be the gift that (mostly) keeps on giving.