City, Howard Co. weighing expansion of growler beer sales

Once, Baltimoreans could stop by the corner tavern and take away a container of their favorite brew, straight from the tap. The sound those pails made as they slid empty down the bar for refills is said to be how they got their name.

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."

He said that take-out is most popular on Sundays during football season and that the microbrewery sells about 50 growler refills a week. Ellicott Mills does not distribute cans or bottles to liquor stores; the only way it sells its popular, copper-colored Marzen is a pint straight from the tap or growlers to go.

Under the local bill, customers could buy a growler of Miller Lite at a restaurant or a craft brew not from the source, siphoning off potential business from brewpubs.

"Of course, we can see it as competition," Venable said.

But not all brewpubs see such legislation as a threat.

At The Brewer's Art, owner Tom Creegan said he welcomes legislation that would allow other Baltimore restaurants to sell growlers. The Mount Vernon restaurant and bar sells cans and bottles of some of its beers at local liquor stores in addition to 20 to 30 growler refills a week at $14 a pop, mostly with its signature Resurrection Ale.

"We fill anybody's growler. We like to have ones with larger mouths" because they are easier to fill, Creegan said. "Don't come in with a plastic jug. We have to draw the line somewhere."

He said the legislation could "help expand craft beer to more people, new people. We make beer. If more want to sell it, the more, the merrier."

Marriner, of Victoria Gastro Pub, said he has no plans to sell cheap beer by the growler.

"They're all craft beers," he said proudly of his wares, which include 250 bottled beers. "We don't do Natty Boh."

On a recent Tuesday night, the bar was packed and, even though it was half-price martini night, many people still enjoyed a frothy beer — or two.

Ryan Wallace, 34, of Columbia and his friend Scott Centea of Raleigh, N.C., experimented with samplers of Kilkenny Irish Cream, among others.

"Draft beer tastes better from the bar. It tastes fresh," said Wallace, noting that many beers he tries at Victoria Gastro Pub aren't sold at most liquor stores.

While states have varying laws on beer-to-go options, especially between breweries and restaurants, the demand for craft beer is growing beyond the self-professed beer snobs.

"I think one of the appeals for the beer drinker is it's fresh beer and you can take it on home ... the idea of being able to pour draft beer at home," said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association in Colorado, a national organization of craft brewers. "Another appeal is that it's a reusable glass container. It skips recycling."

He said take-home beer's roots long precede canned beer and the growler bottle most recognize today.

"My mother tells the story of when she was a kid, in the late 30s, early 40s, when she would take the pail down to the local bar and they would fill up the pail of beer and she would take it home to her father," Gatza said.

Beer pails were common in Baltimore in the days when the city had many local breweries. But after World War II, refrigeration and bottling practices improved and growler use faded.

"It went away because nobody wanted it," said Lou Berman, 63, a trade protection manager for the Maryland comptroller's office, which enforces state alcohol and tobacco laws. "It just went out of style."

Until microbreweries began popping up across the country, he said, there wasn't any need for a system to regulate growlers, which fall between the two major classes of liquor licenses: off-premise and on-premise licenses.

Unlike a six-pack, the growler is filled from the tap, which makes the seller part manufacturer — subject to different tax and license requirements, Berman said.

Berman was the state inspector who cited Victoria Gastro Pub. He said that though the local liquor board had created a license to sell beer to go, the pub "was bottling beer" by filling growlers, which would require a different kind of license.

Ferguson said he considered a bill that would change the law throughout the state, but decided to start in the city and let other counties follow.

"A lot of places just don't address it," he said.

Baltimore City and Howard County growler proposals:

•License issued to Class B establishments (restaurants, not bars).

•The refillable container must be at least 32 ounces but no more than 128 ounces.

•Restaurants must only sell to customers who buy food or an alcoholic beverage from the restaurant.

•The refillable container cannot be opened inside the restaurant.