Many craft beer fans are well acquainted with growlers, reusable bottles — normally made of amber glass — that bars, grocery stores and beer specialty shops fill with beer on draft for patrons to take home. Crowlers (short for “can growlers”) serve exactly the same purpose except they are 32-ounce aluminum cans (the same size as a standard growler). Just as Texas consumers were starting to fall in love with the lighter, more durable transport method, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) has ruled that crowler use by retailers is illegal.
Instead of having a removable cap, crowlers are sealed one by one with a countertop machine. They do a better job than growlers of protecting beer from air and light. Once opened, a crowler is not reusable. However, like other types of aluminum cans, they are recyclable.
Petrol Station owner Ben Fullelove pointed out other benefits. “You didn’t have to be prepared. You could just show up and decide you wanted a couple of beers from the [tap] wall to take home and didn’t have to have an actual growler with you. Plus, they’re lightweight.”
Fullelove knew he was going to have a problem when TABC told Austin-based Cuvee Coffee Bar to stop putting beer in crowlers. Since Fullelove also owns Brash Brewing Co., he’s in a better position than others who invested in the equipment since he can use it at the brewery.
On a one-to-one basis, crowlers are cheaper than growlers, adding only a dollar or two to the overall cost of taking beer to go. The Petrol Station was actually giving away the crowlers for free with beer purchases. Thirty-two-ounce glass growlers usually cost between $4 and $7. Of course, growler costs can be defrayed over time, provided they’re not shattered in some mishap.
The TABC has decided the use of crowlers constitutes “packaging” beer. Only breweries are allowed to can their products. The following excerpt from the FAQ section of the TABC web site explains the commission's interpretation of the law as it applies to crowlers:
Under the Alcoholic Beverage Code, the right to manufacture and sell single-use, permanently sealed cans of malt beverages (also known as crowlers) is reserved for license or permit holders who produce their own beer, ale or malt liquor on-site. This includes only holders of a Brewer’s Permit [Sec. 12.01(a)(1)], a Manufacturer’s License [Sec. 62.01(a)(3)], or holders of a Brewpub License [Sec. 74.01(a)(1)], who may sell crowlers filled with products they produce on-site.
The canning and permanent sealing of beer, ale or malt liquor is a manufacturing process reserved for members of the manufacturing tier, or for license holders authorized to brew and sell malt beverages on-site. Any beverages canned and sold under these permits must be produced by the permit or license holder at the same location where their permit is issued.
Retailers who are not permitted to brew beer, ale, or malt liquor may not can or bottle malt beverage products produced by other manufacturers for resale to consumers.
Other bars losing their investments of $5,000 and up on crowler machines, crowlers and labels are Hughie’s, Nobi Public House and Hop Scholar.
Hughie’s may have been hit hardest by the TABC decision. The bar had previously held a mixed beverage license. In order to be able to offer crowlers, it had to opt out of that license and get a beer and wine permit instead, which owner Phillip Pham said cost an additional $5,600. (Establishments that sell liquor are not allowed to also sell growlers.)
Pham estimates that selling crowlers could have generated $100,000 in revenue the first year. Now he can’t sell them, and thanks to the fact that he no longer has a mixed beverage license, he’s also missing out on an estimated $40,000 in cocktail and spirits sales. Because of the loss of investment, he’s not planning on spending even more cash to get the mixed beverage license back anytime soon.
Neither Pham nor Fullelove anticipated the TABC would have a problem with crowlers — otherwise they never would have bought the equipment.
Chris Porter, the public information officer at TABC, says the issue isn’t glass containers versus aluminum containers. It’s the process for closing them. “Under the Alcoholic Beverage Code, which is set by the legislature, only the manufacturers of beer — including craft breweries and brewpubs — are legally permitted to can their products. They can only can the products they create on-site so a retailer that doesn’t have a brewing permit or some sort of manufacturing permit can’t take a third-party product and can it using their own machinery. That’s illegal under the law as it stands at this moment.”
Porter says that, at this time, the code gives no consideration to the fact that sealing a can with a crowler machine is a very manual, one-at-a-time process that’s totally unlike automated canning.
While it is understandable that breweries’ rights to package their products should be protected, crowlers do not actually infringe on that. The beer sold by retailers for home consumption was on draft and was never intended to be put into individual cans or bottles, otherwise the brewery would have already done it.
If the TABC is concerned that breweries feel their rights are somehow being infringed on, perhaps the agency is worrying about the wrong thing. At least some brewers believe that crowlers are the best way to preserve the integrity of their products.
Ryan Soroka of 8th Wonder Brewery says, “We’re frankly confused at the interpretation on that law. We’re a little removed from it because as a brewery, we can’t even sell regular growlers. In our unbiased opinion, though, a crowler is a more secure way of packaging the product. There can be no concerns on whether something was added after the fact. It’s sealed. It’s closed. You’d know if that product had been opened.”
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Saint Arnold doesn’t seem to feel threatened, either. A statement received via email from founder Brock Wagner says, “I can’t opine on the regulatory side of the crowler issue, but we do love the creativity and variety of ways people are coming up with to enjoy craft beer at home. We would love to see this continue to grow.”
Crowlers were invented in a collaborative effort between Oskar Blues Brewery and Ball Packaging (which happens to have a metal beverage packaging division in Conroe). Oskar Blues has long been a proponent of recyclable aluminum cans and was one of the first craft breweries to put its products in cans instead of bottles.
Updated, 9/3/2015, 1:17 p.m. Jason Dan of the Oskar Blues Crowler Team has this suggestion for the Texas Legislature: "Essentially, there needs to be a law describing a growler (whether it is an aluminum can or a glass vessel) as any container that is filled at the time of sale."
At a time when states such as Oregon and Florida are crowing about crowlers, it seems that the only way Texas retailers are going to be allowed to use them is if interested parties can successfully lobby the Texas Legislature to have the law changed.