Sunday, February 13, 2011

Beer Law: Getting Growlers Filled in California

A little over a year ago I went to Stone Brewing Co. for the first time.  They sell some quality beers, but are more on the expensive side; however, filling a growler there is an incredibly great value.  I bought a couple growlers, got them filled and have so far been able to go back to Stone and get them filled once since them.  In August we went up to Chico and took the Sierra Nevada brewery tour and I brought my Stone growlers hoping to get them filled in the tap room.  I was very disappointed when the bar tender told me that they're not allowed to do that.  When I asked why she said there was a law against it.  I wasn't sure if she was yanking my chain just to get me to buy a Sierra Nevada growler, but I didn't want to argue so I bought one anyway and then let my father-in-law keep it since he might find himself in Chico sooner than I will.

I told myself that I would do some research.  I found some interesting things, which I'll have to write about in another post.  But, here is what I found:

California Business and Professions Code § 25200.  Label; Contents.
All beer sold in this State shall have a label affixed to the package or container thereof, upon which shall appear the true and correct name and address of the manufacturer of the beer, and also the true and correct name of the bottler of the beer if other than the manufacturer. No manufacturer, importer, or wholesaler of beer shall use a container or carton as a package or container of a beer other than such beer as is manufactured by the manufacturer whose name or brand of beer appears upon the container or carton, or use as a package or container of a beer a container or carton which bears the name of a manufacturer of beer or the brand of any beer other than those of the manufacturer of the beer contained in the container or carton.

Yikes!  Have the people up in Sacramento ever heard of turning run on sentences into multiple sentences that actually make sense so you can derive the exact meaning from it?  What the hell does this word vomit mean in real English?

Here is my attempt at a translation:  
Beer sold in California needs a container with a label with the name and address of the maker of the beer, and also the name and address of the bottler of the beer if its someone different.  No one that makes beer shall use a container other than a container from the beer maker whose name is on the container.  And no one that makes beer shall use a container of beer with some other beer maker's name on the carton.

The growler from Sierra Nevada and the growler from Stone look almost identical.  I would not be surprised if they have the same glass manufacturer.  If one has a brand new growler why can't someone else fill it up?  Maybe this is the result of lobbyists.  Maybe its some kind of "safety" thing for liability purposes.  Maybe the government was just making a law so they could look busy.

In sum, I guess the policy at Sierra Nevada follows the law.  That would mean that any brewery that fills up a growler they didn't sell is breaking the law.  Seems kind of silly to have so many glass containers if you want to get growlers from different breweries.  Anyway, that's why some breweries are sticklers about making you buy their growler.

DISCLAIMER: This blog entry is not legal advice and I am not an attorney.  This is for informational purposes only.  If you are seeking legal advice for a particular situation you should consult with an attorney licensed in your state.


  1. Informative article James.

    The law does make sense from a liability issue as well as a branding issue.

    Liability wise, if someone brews something that is "bad" or "dangerous" and they put it in a Budweiser bottle. Budweiser shouldn't be held responsible for what someone else puts into their bottles.

    Branding wise, Brewers take pride in what they do and if someone puts an inferior product into another's bottle and claims it to be what is on the label that is bad for the brand.

    Now the question I would pose to you is...

    I have a growler I purchased from the Burbank location of Gordon Biersch, if I take the growler to another location within State Lines and get it filled are they in obstruction of the law or are they in the clear.

    I would think they would be in the clear... The brewery could also just take the growler I brought in and replace it with one of theirs.

    Let me know what you think...

  2. I've been struggling with this question myself. Looking at the labeling laws for California it states in section 25204 that it needs to conform to federal labeling requirements. The Feds say that a growler filled at time of purchase is considered a large glass not a bottle, and therefore does not need a label. Does California not recognize that definition? I would love to see an in depth article into the California and federal laws with regards growler fills. Below is the interesting bits from the federal FAQ information on growlers.

    When is a growler a “large glass?”
    A growler is a large glass when a consumer uses the container to make a purchase and the brewer then fills the container. Consumers may furnish their own growler or may purchase it from the brewer.

    What are the requirements for growlers that are “glasses?”
    When the brewer fills a growler at the tap at the brewpub, and not in advance of sale, we consider the growler as a large glass sold at retail. These growlers are not subject to Federal labeling requirements. Some States consider this bottling activity and regulate accordingly. Brewers should check with State authorities.

  3. In regards to the federal requirements, I'll have to look more closely at those. Here are some initial thoughts:

    The federal government can certainly make laws under the commerce power, meaning goods that cross state lines (even components that make up those goods) can be regulated. Hypothetically you could have all the ingredients for the beer and the water from California, and the glass made out of sand from California, and all the brewing and manufacturing done in California, and the beer drank in California; then it could be argued that the federal laws do not apply, and only the California laws apply. It may seem like a silly hypothetical, but there is a case making its way to the United States Supreme Court about a gun made in Montana by Montana materials.

    Another thing about federal regulations is that in the United States we have two sovereigns. One sovereign is the federal government, the other sovereign is the state government. Within the federal government we have checks and balances between the branches, but we have another type of balancing with "federalism" which is the balance of power between the federal government and the states. For example, there is no federal police power in the Constitution. We have ICE agents, but those aren't really part of the police power, they're part of the federal government's power to regulate immigration. I bring this up to make the point that any power that is not expressly delegated to the federal government in the constitution (i.e. the police power) is reserved for the states. Bringing this full circle, Congress can create national beer laws under its constitutional commerce power, but states can make their own beer laws because the power to regulate beer is not expressly delegated to the federal government.

    That means we end up with two beer laws from our two sovereigns. When I quickly glanced at the federal regulations from the link I noticed that those regulations are careful to note that states can have their own laws. If California thinks its better for consumers to have safer growlers they can impose a stricter standard than the federal law.

    I definitely would like to do some more research into what the federal government requires, but that is my quick response using some stuff I learned in my law school con law class.

  4. definitely looking forward to more feedback... I have growlers from a couple different brewers and vastly prefer the pop/flip top style (similar to the Stone and Sierra Nevada growlers) over the screw-top style. It seems like the screw top style growlers are prone to leaking and of course, are the type sold by my favorite brewery, Ballast Point. I'm looking for a way to bring a blank or marked up flip-top to Ballast Point that I can legally have them fill.

    Of course, being legal is one thing... Getting them to agree to fill it is the next challenge...

  5. @egtgrant
    I totally agree with your point, even if someone finds a way to legally fill generic growlers doesn't mean the brewers would want to "take that chance" and fill it up for you. I would guess that unless laws change, they would rather stay on the safe side and only fill their own.

  6. great topic. what i find confusing is that each state seems to have it's own regulations, and even those seem rather grey since growlers are a rather new phenomenon.

    i live in nyc and the popularity of growlers are growing tremendously. bars will fill any growler despite what the labeling states and seal with a twist on cap. but i'm curious if there are actual regulations or are bars simply getting away with filling since there aren't concrete regulations? in fact, i'm under the impression that any pub/brewery/restaurant can fill a growler - they just need to place a dollar amount on it? though some are concerned that they need a special permit?

    and i'm even more curious if something exists stating what the regulations are in each state? any insight would be greatly appreciated.

  7. @bari thanks for your comment. First I have to make my disclaimer that I am not an attorney in any state and I'm not giving any legal advice, I am merely commenting on a legal issue. Doing some quick poking around regarding New York, it does not look like New York has passed any laws regulating growlers. Here are a couple links regarding New York's laws on alcohol (looks like they're mostly regarding licensing);

    Here is a New York Times article which says, "The jugs — which, according to the New York State Liquor Authority, have always been legal at both retail outlets and bars."

    My short answer is: it looks like New York doesn't regulate growlers, but don't quote me on that in case I'm wrong.

    And for you last question I don't think there is anything compiling information on each state just because each state's regulations are so varied topically and varied in terms of complexities. Most states, if not all, have a division/bureau/department/agency/whatever that oversees alcohol licensing and enforcement and I would expect that they have a link to their state's statutes.

  8. Years ago, in San Diego, when Ballast Point and Karl Strauss were the only games in town, they both used blank growlers and slapped labels on them, and they'd either just swap us growlers or peel off whatever label was on there, and put on their own. That's changed in recent years. I also heard talk of a San Diego Brewer's Guild growler that would be useful at participating breweries, but that effort failed. My growler collection is approaching unwieldy the way San Diego breweries have been popping up.

  9. In Oregon, we had no regulations. You could take any growler from any brewery, and have them filled. Well, I just forked over $100 dollars for stainless steel growlers and moved to California. Now, my growlers are useless, except for holding water when I go camping.
    My question is, who, what, when, where, why, and how do we work to have this law looked at, and either removed or repealed. Its not good for business when I am told I cannot fill my growlers, because I just turn around and walk out, and will not return.

    1. Well Oregon Beer Lover, I feel your pain. It sucks to have to buy so many different growlers in California and not be able to just reuse other ones. Who knows whether the legislature was thinking when they passed that one. They have enough trouble trying to pass a budget months after the deadline.

      I'm not a Ronald Reagan fan, buy my daily Lawyer calendar had this quote yesterday from Reagan, "We have the means to change the laws we find unjust or onerous. We cannot, as citizens, pick and choose the laws we will or will not obey." We all know the means Reagan was talking about: we can vote, we can write our legislators, we can talk to our legislators, in California we have propositions, etc. Unfortuantely, to really be heard by the legislature it can take a lot of money, and even if you are heard its a slow process. But the cheapest way is to google your state senator and state assembly member and email them. Maybe that's not the most satisfying answer, but its either that or living with the state of the growler law as it is.

    2. So if I were to open a Craft pizza and Craft beer joint in CA with 50 or so different taps and print stick on labels for each growler via a digital database (like when you buy bulk food at Whole Foods) that had the necessary info, and on a restaurant named growler would I be in the clear?

  10. @MM Beer Geek -- The second sentence of the above statute is a little confusing the way its written, but I think its basically saying that if you're going to resell the beer you need to sell it in the container from the manufacturer. I don't think its as simple as labeling growlers. If you go to a brewery and get a growler filled in California they're very insistent on it being their growler; and the ones that I've seen all have some kind of permanent marking indicating the brewery, and then they just use a sticker for the particular type of beer. I've never seen a restaurant or bar that does not make the beer themselves sell growlers. I have yet to find anything from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control ("ABC") interpreting this statute or clarifying it, but that's my reading of it -- you cannot sell growlers of beer if you're not the the one making it, and its not as simple as sticker labels. Running a restaurant and selling beer you would want to make sure you comply with every letter of the law with the ABC so you don't loose your license or get any fines.

  11. I work at a Brewpub in CA. When we first opened we used to fill any growler that walked in the door. I think most breweries/brewpubs did back then. Then, either this law was introduced or, suddenly, everyone was made aware of it, and we, like everyone else, had to start limiting growler fills to our own labeled bottles.
    I can assure everyone, at least in our case, it had nothing to do with greed or the want to make a patron buy one of our bottles. It most assuredly had everything to do with not wanting to get caught running afoul of California ABC laws and facing serious penalties such as fines and being temporarily shutdown. We hate this law and hate trying to explain it to patrons who, like your initial response above, tend to think we are conning them into buying one of our growlers for profit reasons.
    @Oregon Beer Lover: The law sucks but we have to follow it. I guess you won't be drinking much fresh beer in California if you refuse to frequent these establishments. They aren't going to risk having their businesses shut down so you won't get upset about not having an improperly labeled growler filled.

  12. i actually want to open a growler bar and im gonna make this happen!!!

  13. I've been a microbrew enthusiast for over 25 years, & have toured most of Northern Calif to explore the brew scene. I also have several growlers, a couple of which are from extinct breweries. I only recently became aware of the law(s) governing re-use of the growlers. It's really pretty absurd. I can't buy beer to put into a generic 1/2 gallon jug if it isn't labeled with the correct brewery's name etc. But I can buy a keg of various sizes without the labeling. And a 1/2 keg is approx 15.5 gallons of beer! I would think that an adhesive label put on the growler would meet the labeling requirement, but I suspect that most of the (small) microbreweries couldn't afford the costs if they got busted for skirting the law. With the rapid growth of the microbrew industry, it's pretty obvious that the laws, both state & Fed, haven't caught up with the reality in the industry - including the recycling issues.