Growlers Gain Freedom in AZ Thanks to . . . Walgreens?

In the “how do your beer laws stack up department” comes news from Arizona about a growler fill law which took effect in early August.   You’ll recall the 2011 Montana legislature passed a bill clarifying that any establishment with an on-premise consumption license can fill growlers for off-premise consumption.  It was considered a “clarification” because the long-standing, though not terribly common, practice had been called into question by a Department of Revenue interpretation of relevant statutes.

Arizona’s main alcohol laws take the unlawful-except-where-permitted format which makes for weird and occasionally challenging reading, but here’s how the new one reads:

Section 4-244, Arizona Revised Statutes, Unlawful acts. It is unlawful: * * * 

32. For a licensee or employee to knowingly permit spirituous liquor to be removed from the licensed premises, except in the original unbroken package. This paragraph does not apply to any of the following:  * * *

(c) a bar, beer and wine bar, liquor store, beer and wine store or domestic microbrewery licensee who dispenses beer only in a clean glass container with a maximum capacity that does not exceed one gallon and not for consumption on the premises as long as: 

(i) the licensee or the licensee’s employee fills the container at the tap at the time of sale.
(ii) the container is sealed with a plastic adhesive and displays a government warning label.
(iii) the dispensing of that beer is not done through a drive‑through or walk‑up service window.

Prior to the change, growler fills were limited to beer brewed on-site from a brewer’s own product line. For example, brewpubs with on-site breweries which also had taps from other breweries could only fill growlers from the beer brewed on site.  It’s interesting to see that “the dispensing” of the beer cannot be done through a drive-through or walk up window.  Arizona does allow hard liquor to be sold via drive through window.

I’m curious why the legislature chose to use the word “dispensing” beer, rather than the “sale” of beer since the Arizona alcohol laws treat the terms differently.  But I digress.  (And solidify my beer-law “geek” status.)

There are two things of note in comparing Arizona’s law to Montana’s.  Arizona requires a plastic seal and limits the container to glass, neither of which are required under Montana law.  It’s the glass limitation which particularly caught my eye.

Rob Fullmer at the Beer PHXation Blog has excellent coverage and commentary on the law change here. I asked Rob to fill us in on the back-story to the change.

As it turns out, it’s not what you might think.  Sure, brewers guilds (like the Montana Brewers Association) and other industry groups are often proactive in advance their causes in state legislature. In this case, it was a call from pharmaceutical retailer Walgreens that got the ball rolling.  Walgreens provides growler fills at four drugstores it operates in New York (under a different name) and apparently wanted to open up the opportunity in Arizona.  Next thing you know, a bill is drafted, passed by the legislature and voila!  Growlers fills gain greater freedom throughout the state.

It’s not really that easy, but there’s a cautionary note there, too.  The bill was written and advanced without involving Arizona’s brewers guild, suggesting one of two things. Either the guild isn’t that connected to the legislature, or someone thought the guild would be a hindrance to the effort.  (Those are my observations, not Rob’s.)  A quote from the director of the Arizona Craft Brewer’s Guild in an article on suggests it might be the later:  “Bottling and canning is better packaging than growlers,” said Jerry Gantt, executive director of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild. “The only reason I would buy a growler of something is if it were not available in a bottle or can. And a half gallon is a lot of beer to drink, for me. The bottom part is going to get a bit funky in the refrigerator before I can drink it again.”

He’s right about the quality of the packaging, of course, but even a reasonably educated craft beer drinker has long learned the pluses and minuses of growlers. The vast majority of Montana craft beer is not available in cans or bottles. Thus, if we want to enjoy it somewhere outside the brewery or a bar, a growler is the only way to go.  Plus, we like to drink with friends.  I can’t remember the last time a growler lasted long enough to get funky in the refrigerator.  Or even made it into the fridge, for that matter.

Another concern? If a national giant like Walgreens can swoop in and get a change made relatively quickly and easily, what might happen if another giant sought a more restrictive law?

Given the ever increasing styles of growlers, I’m surprised someone along the way did not attempt to broaden the definition of “growler” to include materials other than glass.  (Actually, I’m guessing someone at least made inquiries, but I don’t have that story.)   Resealable plastic growlers have become popular in Montana because they’re legal to carry on our rivers. I’d love to get my hands on Hydro Flask’s new-ish vacuum insulated stainless steel growler, but the price point keeps me pushing that off. You can’t get either filled in Arizona. 

Still, it’s another example of an improving legal climate for craft beer across the U.S.