This advisory didn’t change any laws. In fact, there is very little legislation regulating growlers in the state. Currently, the ABCC defers growler labeling requirements to federal guidelines established by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. You can read more about the legal details here.
The short and sweet version of all this legal mumbo-jumbo is breweries are legally required to label growlers with their logo, place of production, net contents and a government warning ONLY IF the brewery is filling the container before sale (pre-filled growlers not filled from the tap). If a consumer brings in their own container or purchases one from the brewer, it can be completely blank and the brewery is allowed to fill it if they so choose.
The most common concern I’ve heard over the past few days is over branding and marketing. As Brian Shurtleff from Bog Iron Brewing laid it out, this greatly affects the smaller breweries of the state.
“Branding has a massive impact on individual breweries and is a massive driver in our industry,” Brian said.
Many of these smaller brewers rely on growlers as their only way of getting their beer out of their taproom because they can’t afford a bottling or canning line. Their logo on a growler is a major factor in spreading their name through the community. (Brian lays it all out with a great blog post on the brewery’s website.)
Another concern is pricing. If anyone can walk in with any sized container, it requires brewers to break down pricing by the ounce and tally up the totals for each fill. This can cause a greater burden on the folks behind the bar serving customers.
Finally, and possibly the biggest issue, is the lack of communication and transparency. Speaking with brewers, none had been consulted by any state officials leading up to the release of the advisory and some are still waiting for clarification days later. As the state moves forward in developing a task force aimed at re-working alcohol laws, communication will be key and the input from brewers will serve as vital information.
With this new information spreading through the state’s craft beer community, it’s become up to the individual breweries to decide what this will mean for them and their brand.
“This new rule opens up a great opportunity for many Massachusetts breweries that rely on growlers as their primary source of selling beer to-go. Ordering and storing pallets of growlers and maintaining the supply when business is good can be both expensive and challenging. We hope this alleviates some of that burden,” he said. “However, this change may also cause confusion for consumers as the new rule states that the growlers must be blank and devoid of other brewery branding. Ultimately, this won’t help those eager to unload their branded growler collection. Also, breweries still have the right to decline filling any type of growler, or growlers at all. It will be up to the breweries to make their individual policies clear on their website and social media channels to avoid disappointed guests in their tap rooms.”
The folks at Shovel Town Brewing said they welcome the flexibility to allow customers to fill their favorite growler, rather than be limited to one branded container.
One of the state’s most popular breweries, Trillium Brewing, stated on their Twitter that as of now, they will continue following their previous policy of filling only Trillium growlers until they have the chance to define their policy moving forward.
However, many brewers are still not sure how to proceed as they still have stockpiles of their own branded containers and want to be absolutely sure they are following all aspects of state and federal law.
On its surface, this change in practice can be seen as a huge benefit to consumers. There’s a certain freedom of walking into your favorite brewery with your favorite growler and have it filled.
However, the most common complaint from consumers has been the unnecessary collection of brewery-specific growlers. As Burns said in his statement above, this doesn’t really alleviate the stockpile of growlers many folks have and it can even add more to those, since they’ll need additional blank ones. People can try and remove all labeling from current growlers, but that’s just more of a hassle.
I personally have not seen much rejoicing in the comment sections following news of the advisory. Many are now confused as to what they can bring into a brewery to be filled.
Some people may head out to a brewery with their own growler, only to find that the brewery has its own policies and that customer may become upset. This may be a rare case but it can happen and already does from time to time.
It’s clear there is no perfect solution, but what is clear is the need for specific legislation and legal guidelines. This change of practices has only made the grey area of growler fills messier rather than clean it up. There is a major need for rules that lay out what breweries and consumers can and can’t do and those rules need to be crafted with at least some input from industry representatives.