See if this make any sense.
A bar fills up your amber-colored growler with your favorite craft brew to-go, screws on the cap, and that’s perfectly legal. But if said bar fills up a giant can instead and stamps on a cap to seal it, that bar is now a beer “manufacturer” – which decidedly not legal.
That’s the brain-twisting legal argument behind the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s war on so-called “crowlers,” a portmanteau of “can” and “growler,” which up until last year you could’ve found in a small but growing number of bars, grocery stores and specialty beer shops. Just as Texas beer lovers – and bars – had started to embrace the newest, easiest take-home craft brew trend (many argue the 32-ounce cans are lighter, more durable, easier for bars to sell and better protect your beer from air and light), the state regulatory buzzkills at the TABC decided that crowlers are, for some reason, outside the law.
TABC effectively killed the market for crowlers last September after it raided the Austin-based Cuvee Coffee Bar and seized its tabletop seaming machine, an invention by the Colorado craft beer pioneers at Oskar Blues Brewery. TABC soon afterward “clarified” the loosely-worded section of the state alcoholic beverage code on “packaging” beer to effectively regulate crowlers out of existence.
“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,” according to a statement on the TABC website. Evidently “growler-ing” is different than “bottling” as far as the TABC is concerned.
San Antonio-based attorney Angel Tomasino is now representing Cuvee in a case that’s currently before a state administrative law judge over the crowler issue. “TABC is basically arguing that anytime beer is ‘canned,’ it’s considered manufacturing beer, which retailers can’t do,” he told the Current. “Our argument is quite simply that selling beer to go isn’t manufacturing – that that’s just not a valid interpretation of the law.” He says the parties had a hearing this past August and were scheduled to file closing arguments with the judge last week. He expects the judge on the case to come to a decision sometime in the next couple of months.
But even if the judge on the case agrees with Cuvee, that doesn’t necessarily mean the three-member governing board at the TABC will agree. And if the case stalls, the only other fix in the near term could be to lobby Texas lawmakers to amend the state alcoholic beverage code to explicitly allow for crowlers when they go back into session in January.
It’s something people like Rob Martindale, owner of San Antonio’s Big Hops Growler Station, are closely watching. Back when TABC was still mum on crowlers, Martindale bought three of the machines for each of his growler station locations. During their short-lived run, Martindale says those machines were cranking out about 75 crowlers a week for customers.
Martindale says he’s perplexed that such a simple question has had to wind its way through the convoluted regulatory process, and might ultimately have to be answered by state lawmakers.
“I pour beer into a growler and sell it to you and it’s perfectly legal,” he asks. “Why not cans?”