A handful of Anne Arundel County liquor stores are taking advantage of new liquor laws in hopes of cashing in on beer drinkers' interest in craft brews.
They've installed taps in their stores to dispense specialty beers into refillable glass jugs called growlers — a practice that was legalized in the county at the beginning of July.
John Fisher, owner of Staples Corner Liquors in Gambrills, drove to Annapolis earlier this year to testify before state lawmakers in favor of the law allowing growlers in the city and county.
He sees growlers as a benefit in multiple ways: Merchants can sell a new product, breweries have another venue for selling their beer, the state can get more money from the liquor tax and consumers have more options.
"It benefits everybody," said Fisher, who installed a growler-filling station that uses a carbon dioxide process that, he says, keeps the beer fresh for up to 30 days in the growler.
Under the law, customers must buy the growlers from the liquor store or restaurant. Fisher said he ordered 144 empty 64-ounce growlers, which he sold out in 21/2 days. The growlers cost about $5 each, with the cost of fill-ups varying based on the brand of beer.
Fisher said filling growlers is a natural extension of his business. He said he's tried to set himself apart by offering a broad selection of microbrews.
On a recent day, his growler taps were pouring beers from Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Goose Island in Chicago, 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco and Smuttynose Brewing Co. in New Hampshire. In the fall, he'll offer Oktoberfest beers and in wintertime he'll feature holiday beers.
At Fishpaws Marketplace in Arnold, beer manager James Harrison rotates craft beers and limited-release brews among the eight taps for filling growlers.
"We're always changing it up," Harrison said. "Every time a keg kicks, we tap something else."
Fishpaws received its growler license July 3. Harrison said in the first week, the shop emptied five kegs of beer filling growlers. He said he's seen customers' interest in craft beers and local beers growing in recent years. The store offers beer tastings Thursday evenings and on many Fridays to introduce customers to new brews.
"Even the people that come in and buy a 30-pack of Coors Light, they walk by the craft beer section and they look," he said.
Baljit Cheema's Odenton Liquors got into the craft beer business about a year ago; now he has 19 refrigerator doors devoted to unusual beers. He hopes the growler filling station will satisfy beer lovers who are always seeking out new brews.
Cheema plans to offer growler sales of beers that are available only in kegs, not in cans or bottles.
"A lot of people who drink craft beer, they are willing to try all different kind of beers, whatever is out there," Cheema said. "It's not like some people that just drink Miller Lite every day or Coors Light every day. Those people will try anything out there."
Cheema started selling growlers Wednesday. He hopes his investment in the growler-filling station pays off.
"I'm trying anything which is available out there," he said. "It could work out, or it may not work out. Time will tell."
Previously, statewide law prohibited retailers from refilling liquor containers once they've been emptied. State lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 allowing growlers in Howard County and in Baltimore City, according to state legislative analysts.
Then, in this year's General Assembly session, bills legalizing growlers in Anne Arundel County and Annapolis and a few other counties sailed through. The Annapolis and Anne Arundel laws allow liquor stores and restaurants with certain types liquor licenses — licenses that allow takeout sales of alcohol — to apply for a growler license.
As the bills worked their way through the General Assembly, legislative analysts estimated that 254 businesses in the county and 85 businesses in Annapolis would be eligible to apply for growler sales.
By expanding the availability of growlers, Maryland is part of a national trend, said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a national trade organization for small and craft breweries. Gatza expects more states will follow suit and legalize growlers at nonbrewery locations.
"There's always been an appeal for draft beer — the idea that you can get a fresh beer poured for you and take it home and consume it right away," Gatza said. "It's like having a tap at your house, almost. That's a big appeal."
The implementation of the new law hasn't been without its hiccups, however.
A couple of retailers' plans to sell growlers were delayed because they didn't have all of the proper disclaimer information printed on the vessels, as required by the state laws.
And when Chuck Ferrar, owner of Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, went to Annapolis government offices to get his growler license, he found no such license existed.
The Annapolis city council passed emergency bills on Monday night to create the growler license, but as of Thursday, city officials still hadn't gotten everything in order. Ferrar hoped to get his license in a matter of days.
Ferrar, who is president of the county's licensed beverage association, praised city and county officials for their efforts, despite the holdups. He's ready to tap a variety of regional beers on his growler filling station, including brews from DuClaw, Flying Dog, Fordham and Burley Oak.
"I've got my bottles and I've got my beer," he said.