Should Illinois bars and restaurants be allowed to fill growlers of beer for their guests? It’s a simple question…but there’s a long list of things to think about.We started thinking more deeply about the legality of growler fills a little over a week ago, when the Mash Tun Journal published this piece: The Growler Standoff. Zak Rotello at the Olympic Tavern in Rockford has been a passionate advocate for the freedom to fill growlers for a long time, and Chris Quinn of the Beer Temple is probably one of the leading thinkers in the Chicagoland craft beer community, so if you haven’t read it, do so — both sides make great cases.
A little bit of background for those of you playing catch-up and are too lazy to click through to that other link. Many other states allow bars and restaurants to fill growlers of beer for their patrons to take home with them. I’ve happily taken a growler of beer home from a restaurant in Miami, for example, when a convenience store wasn’t available and I wanted some Cigar City for a bit later. I was also thrilled to see a crowler machine show up at one of my favorite bars in the country, Traverse City’s 7 Monks. And quite famously, there is even a gas station known for its growler fills in Bend, Oregon.
At the moment, however, Illinois does not currently allow anyone other than breweries and brewpubs (manufacturers) to put beer in anything other than a single-serving glass.
Why is that?
Back in April 2014, the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois (ABDI) and Illinois Craft Brewers Guild (ICBG) formed a unified front against bars, restaurants and bottleshops filling growlers.* The ICBG sent a letter to members from its Board of Directors which stated: “The Board is not in favor of non-brewers selling growlers to the public.”
From that letter:
“[F]illing growlers is a well-established right or special privilege in Illinois that brewers (manufacturers) have in order to guarantee and protect the integrity and freshness of their product.”
While the ABDI is not named in the letter, spokesperson Carol Shirley tells Guys Drinking Beer they met with members of the ICBG and discussed the issue in February. “ABDI stands with the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild on this issue, as we too believe the integrity of the product may be jeopardized,” said Shirley.
Besides the issue of the “integrity of the product”, restricting growler fills to taprooms and brewpubs builds in some financial benefits for a brewery — if you really want a growler of one of their beers, you can’t go to the corner bar. You have to go to the source.
Even with this natural advantage, a number of breweries don’t want to fill your growler. When we talked to Solemn Oath co-founder and president John Barley last year, he said this:
I hate the idea of the growler. We do ‘em at Solemn Oath, but I don’t like the idea of a growler, period. We put all this money and effort and time in to QA and QC and then someone brings in their dirty growler for me to put my beer in? It’s not my favorite vessel, I would say.
At least one brewery — Blue Nose in La Grange — does not fill growlers and only fills crowlers, the 32oz. sealed-can version of a growler. When I spoke with head brewer David Kelley during research for my forthcoming Beer Lovers Chicago book, he told us that when they learned about the advantages of crowlers over growlers, they decided to only fill cans, not bottles.
No less than Larry Bell had the same QC concerns about growlers, when legislation allowing fills went through Michigan in 2013.
Bell eventually supported the move towards growlers.
We reached out to a number of Illinois breweries for their take on the growler situation.
Half Acre’s Gabriel Magliaro responded in favor of the restriction on growler fills at breweries only. “Every license type has its set of advantages and limitations,” Magliaro said via email. “While one may feel certain elements are confining in any license, it’s these differences that set us all apart and provide a unique way to connect to people interested in the world of beer. If everyone could do everything, then I’d argue that we’d all become a little less unique and specifically relevant.”
“Each license type has privileges,” Magliaro adds. “There are privileges that I don’t have as a manufacturer, the same goes for brewpub owners and bar/store owners. As a brewpub or a manufacturing brewer with a retail license, one can sell growlers of their beer. If a bar or restaurant wants to sell growlers, they can, but they need to go through the process of securing a brewpub or manufacturing license and live with the set of advantages and limitations that go with being a brewer and having that license.”
Some were strongly in favor of selling growlers outside breweries. Josh Gilbert of Temperance told us, “there are lots of places around the country where growlers are sold outside of breweries, and consumers love it. Personally, I’m in favor of selling more beer and getting our beer into the hands and gullets of more consumers.”
Mikerphone’s Mike Pallen pointed out a recent conversation he had with the Pour Man site, where he stated “I do not distribute kegs very often, but if I did, I would not be opposed to establishments filling growlers with my beer. First off, I trust the owners of these establishments to not only represent my beer properly, but also to properly take care of their lines. Most, if not all, have their lines cleaned weekly. This is incredibly important when discussing pouring beer into growlers. Second, I see a growler as another form of package/vessel. Maybe someone cannot get a can or bottle of Mikerphone beer but has the opportunity to get a 32- or 64-ounce container of fresh beer to go home with. I am all for it.”
Others were mixed, like Cesar Marron of Sketchbook Brewing, who told us: “Since in our case filling growlers is a huge part of our business, we take it very seriously and have a huge number of customers that love it. Opening this up for bars and restaurants has its pluses and minuses. On the plus, it creates another way for customers to enjoy our beers even if they can’t come to our taproom. On the minuses, bars and restaurants would need to be equipped to properly fill growlers and for the most part, they would take a big cut on the profits if they were to be competitive with taprooms (12-15 dollars per growler, instead of selling 4 pints equivalent).”
Marron adds, “for the breweries that are local, there could be a competitive disadvantage. A customer who is introduced to a new beer in a restaurant, may want to go visit the brewery’s taproom and grab a growler. Another disadvantage would be with large retailers that use beer as a way to get customers in the store, where they would be able to sell growlers at such low prices that it would dilute local craft brands.” All fair points.
*** UPDATE (4/27, 9am): We asked Metropolitan Brewing’s Tracy Hurst to add her voice to the conversation, and spoke with her yesterday afternoon. Her comments — which are in very much in favor of allowing growler fills — were better included in their own post, which we recommend you read in full here. END UPDATE ***
Others responded simply with an “absolute yes” on filling growlers at bars and restaurants, or conversely, simply simply stated that they agreed with Chris Quinn’s assessment of the situation. As we said — a mixed response, but certainly not anything approaching uniform opposition to the idea of a bartender pouring their beer into a large bottle.
Of note: During the research process for this piece, we learned that the ICBG will be revisiting and addressing the issue of growler fills sometime in the near future.
Here’s my stance: Growlers are a thing that bars and restaurants should be free to fill and sell if they like. If a bar or restaurant is entrusted to run the product through their draft lines and pour it into a pint or tulip glass, it should be able to do the same for a 64oz. bottle. (If there was a special license that were to specifically allow permission to fill growlers but also made draft line cleaning mandatory every two weeks? That’d be just about perfect.)
*** UPDATE (4/26 9am): The folks at Solemn Oath kindly let us know that the ILCC already mandates regular line cleaning. (Language about that cleaning regimen and a link to the ILCC page has been linked at the end of this post.) A new license could certainly be able to help fund some more oversight of those who want to fill growlers, though, to ensure that the lines are being cleaned as required by law. This is why we’re talking about this, too – to figure out what can be done, and what should be done better. END UPDATE ***
At the same time, we should all acknowledge that growlers aren’t a great way to transport beer, and there still needs to be a lot of education when it comes to growler beer. And it’s education that needs to be done mostly on the drinker’s side. No one should really think that a growler is the best vessel for a beer, but sometimes, it’s the only option. As such, I see no harm in allowing it as long as we all agree that there should be some ground rules about drinking growler beer.
We concur that this stance is certainly conflicted at best. Basically, it’s a thing we should be able to do, that we should very rarely actually want to do. Packaged beer, from the brewers hands to your fridge, is preferable in nearly all circumstances. But if someone wants to take a growler of the newest Spiteful home from The Green Lady, or if the Hopleaf is standing-room-only but I still want to take a nice hard-to-find Belgian somewhere else to BYOB, or if I’m in town on business staying a downtown hotel and I want to take a howler of something local back to my hotel room…how is any of that a bad thing?
Brewers — we recognize this may take away a bit of the magic from a visit to your taproom. We’re sorry about that. Here’s the thing, though — you’ve still got an extremely important advantage when it comes to filling growlers. You’ve got the freshest beer. That alone should be reason enough to visit your location, along with things like the greatest variety and exclusive brewery-only offerings.
It’s worth noting at this point that according to Brewers Association data, in the five states with the highest number of breweries per capita — Vermont, Oregon, Colorado, Montana and Maine, in that order — three allow retailers to fill growlers, two do not. So although it’s not a straight line between brewery success and legal growler fills, it’s certainly not a brewery killer either.
We recognize that growlers are imperfect at best. That’s why we’ve come up with something we like to call: The Growler Buyer’s Pledge. If we expect bars and restaurants to be allowed to pour us growlers, we drinkers need to recognize the many issues with drinking growler beer.
Repeat after me!
I, the purchaser of a growler of beer, understand that:
- The beer in this growler is extremely perishable.
- The beer in this growler begins degrading the second it leaves the tap.
- If there is a packaged version of the beer, the packaged version of that beer is almost always preferable to the beer in this growler.
- If the beer in this growler is purchased anywhere other than the brewery itself, I waive the right to complain about the freshness or flavor of the beer.
- If I absolutely must say something publicly about the flavor of the beer, I will also note that it was served from a growler, as well as the length of time between filling and drinking.
I, the purchaser of a growler of beer, will:
- Drink the beer as soon after filling and opening as is reasonably possible.
- Finish the growler in one sitting, and not hold it over multiple days once opened.
- Open the bottle as few times as possible.
- Rinse the bottle repeatedly with hot water as soon as the glass is empty.
- Not store the empty bottle with the cap on.
- Prefer to purchase the packaged version of a beer whenever reasonably possible.
Anything else we missed? Feel free to let us know and we can add or amend points as necessary. As for the growler filler’s pledge, for bars and restaurants? We’ve got that in the works — and we’ll come out with it as soon as the state makes it legal to fill growlers.
We leave you with the final thing that Gabe Magliaro told us, which although we differ on growlers, we also completely agree with. “It’s great that craft beer is sought after in the way it is. Everybody has to pick a path and celebrate it to the best of their ability.”
We found ILCC language about cleaning your lines located on page six of this document, stating:
1 Each retailer, not using one of the systems referred to in subsection (b)(2), dispensing draught beer or wine shall have coils and other equipment used in drawing draught beer or wine cleaned at least once every week in some manner or means, either chemical or mechanical. The use of steam or hot water alone is not permissible.
2 Retailers utilizing systems such as “glycol,” “constant cold,” “electronic,” or “constant cleaning,” which are designed to prevent build-up of contaminants in the dispensing system, shall be required to have coils and other equipment used in drawing draught beer or wine cleaned at least once every two weeks in some manner or means, either chemical or mechanical, and monitor the operation of the system to determine it is operational and to verify its proper functioning, at least once every week.
3 A record shall be kept of the dates when the cleaning was done, signed by the person who actually performed the cleaning and monitoring.
*Strangely enough, there is one restaurant in Chicago called Blackfinn Ameripub that “serves” growlers — in that they will sell you a 64oz. bottle and then fill it for you to drink…but only on premise. Then you can take the glass home, and bring it back to the restaurant next time. It’s a weird setup but if you want to pay $17.50 for 64oz. of Coors Light, be our guest.