In Florida's "beer war," the growler appears to be winning

After a two-year political and public relations battle, Florida's craft beer fans may soon be able to leave their local brewery with the preferred half-gallon refillable jug of the microbrew they love and retire their "Free the growler" T-shirts.

The Florida Legislature appears poised to pass a bill that would legalize 64-ounce refillable beer jugs or "growlers," which are legal in every other state. Florida already allows quart and gallon growlers, but the popular half-gallon became a pawn in a battle over the complex laws regulating brewing and sale of beer. Politically powerful distributors of Anheuser-Busch, the makers of Budweiser, effectively blocked legislation legalizing growlers as they sought to preserve the legal structure on which their business is built.

The result was a political headache for the majority Republicans in the Florida Legislature. They appeared to side against the small businesses and entrepreneurs they profess to love, and in favor of government regulation.

"People sense that the big guy is beating up on the little guy and it just feels wrong," said state Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, a growler backer. "It's been making the government look bad."

She blamed the history of beer industry regulation and "the dominance of the beer distributor lobby."

Grass-roots support and craft beer's role as a tourism driver has changed the tide, Young said. "The outcry from the general public and the absurdity of the law is finally being heard."

Under Florida's three-tiered regulation system, brewers must sell to distributors, who then sell to retailers. There was a decades-old exception that allowed brewers to sell beer at their breweries, an exemption intended to allow Tampa's Busch Gardens amusement park to sell beer to visitors.

Under a separate law enacted before craft breweries became popular in Florida, beer can only be sold in containers up to a quart or a gallon or more, which makes the half-gallon growler favored by beer enthusiasts illegal.

"It's four U.S. pints -- that means I can have two and you can have two," said Carol Dekkers -- just right for an evening at home with a craft beer. Dekkers, a Zephyrhills software engineer, calls the ban on half-gallon growlers "short-sighted and arbitrary."

In last year's legislative session, it appeared that the ban would finally be lifted, but beer distributors succeeded in adding conditions to legislation that craft brewers said would drive them out of business. For example, it would have forced all but the smallest breweries to sell their own bottles and cans of beers to distributors and then buy them back before they could sell them to brewery visitors. The bill died. This year's bill by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is advancing with no such conditions.

Eric Criss, a lobbyist who represents Miller/Coors distributors, said the regulatory structure isn't simply for distributors' protection, but is intended in part to prevent large breweries from monopolizing the market.

Criss, who has supported legalizing the half-gallon growler, said the strategy by Anheuser-Busch InBev distributors of "holding the growler hostage in an attempt to address more substantial issues" was a mistake.

Mitch Rubin, a lobbyist who represents Anheuser-Busch InBev distributors, acknowledged that the growler "has never been the central issue."

The distributors' goal, he said, is to prevent development of large chains of taverns selling one brand and masquerading as breweries.

"This has been pitched as a big beer v. little beer kind of issue, and it's not."

The beer distributors want to add a condition to Latvala's bill limiting the number of establishments any brewer can open. Latvala resists that idea.

"Normally Republicans agree that the market ought to decide things like that," he said. "Did anybody tell Wal-Mart they can only have 10 stores?"

Craft brewers say they deserve freedom to operate like any other business and argue that their presence can revitalize neighborhoods.

In Jacksonville, the Bold City Brewery and Intuition Ale Works helped revitalize a rundown area in the Riverside district and helped bring customers to other businesses, said City Councilman Jim Love.

"It's almost like a neighborhood pub," Love said of Bold City. "It brings pride to the neighborhood."