City, Howard Co. weighing expansion of growler beer sales
Beer-to-go option subject of local bills proposed in Annapolis
Randy Marriner, owner of Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, is trying to get legislation passed that will allow his pub and others to sell growler, refillable beer-to-go jugs, to customers. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / January 31, 2012)
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Growlers, which in recent decades have taken the form of 2-liter brown-glass jugs, have been experiencing a resurgence among beer enthusiasts looking for their favorite microbrews or those who just want fresh draft beer at home. But many Maryland brewers and restaurant owners are prohibited from selling growlers and are pushing for a change in state law.
Statewide restrictions limit the sale of growlers to brewpubs that make their own beer on the premises and sell food, excluding bars and most restaurants. Only 15 establishments in Maryland have such a license, and lawmakers from Baltimore City and Howard County want to expand sales.
"I think it would be a great thing for people trying new beers," said Casey Hard, general manager of Max's Taphouse in Fells Point, which offers 102 beers on tap. The restaurant is not allowed to serve growlers, though customers often come in with a brown bottle only to be disappointed.
Hugh Sisson, general partner of Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe, is working with state legislators to refine the growler law in Baltimore. He helped lead efforts in the 1980s to get laws changed to allow the first brewpub in the state, and now he's hoping he can sell growlers of his Heavy Seas Beer at a new restaurant, Heavy Seas Ale House, on Central Avenue and Bank Street, which is scheduled to open Feb. 15.
He said he doesn't want Maryland to fall behind as other states move to more flexible laws for growlers. In Buffalo, N.Y., for instance, Sunoco gas stations have held pilot projects allowing patrons to fill up their car and their growler in one stop.
"It seems to be an evolving trend across the country," Sisson said.
While many bars in Maryland sell carry-out beer, wine and liquor, it is always in sealed bottles or cans. Though people in the industry say the law is not clear, the state considers growlers to be refillable containers, which require a different license. Two bills proposed in Annapolis would allow licensed restaurants in Baltimore City and Howard County to fill growlers intended to be opened at home.
State Sen. William "Bill" C. Ferguson IV, a Democrat who represents Baltimore's waterfront, said he believes the current laws were passed to help prevent "up-selling liquor by deception."
For example, an unscrupulous bartender might fill a fancy Grey Goose vodka bottle with cheaper Rikaloff. But he doesn't think that would be an issue with growlers, which are generally filled directly from the tap.
Ferguson has introduced what he terms a "very limited" bill that would create a "refillable container license" for restaurants in the city and would exclude bars that do not serve food. The bill requires General Assembly approval, as would a similar bill planned in Howard.
As it is, the current law on growlers in Baltimore has proved confusing for some, said Stephan Fogleman, the city's liquor board chairman. "Depending on who you ask, they are legal or illegal," he said.
Some city establishments have been known to acquiesce to customers who lug in their jugs.
"We have better things to do than worry about that," he said.
In Howard County, where legislation passed last year to allow restaurants to sell sealed, carry-out alcohol, the restriction on refillable containers came as a surprise to Randy Marriner, owner of Victoria Gastro Pub, which has a wide selection of brews.
Until December, he said, his bartenders filled growlers from the 24 taps, until a state liquor inspector told them it was a "criminal activity" because refillable containers were not permitted under the Columbia restaurant's license.
Marriner went to his county delegation, which drafted a bill similar to Baltimore's that would permit restaurants to sell draft beer in refillable containers.
Just 15 brewpubs in Maryland are now allowed to refill growlers, including Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. on Main Street in Ellicott City.
David Venable, the manager there, does not support the Howard legislation, saying, "We would like to keep it primarily to craft brews."