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Local beer brewer not as excited about ending the growler war as you’d think

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

When Gov. Rick Scott signed the growler bill last week, Scott’s signature on Senate Bill 186 repealing Florida’s longstanding and sort of silly ban on 64-ounce growlers was a win for several Tampa Bay lawmakers, including state Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Dana Young, who have been working on the issue for three years.

It’s been a high-profile issue attracting both news and satire throughout the state as lawmakers literally argued over beer. But surprisingly, it’s not the growlers that beer makers are excited about.

“It’s been more of a PR thing with the consumer,” said Tom Williams, owner of St. Pete Brewing Co. “It’s not a very big part of our business.”

While Williams isn’t jumping up and down with glee over the soon-to-come half-gallon growlers, he is still glad the bill was signed into law.

What is less commonly talked about among beer enthusiasts following the progress of Florida’s great craft beer debate is how small craft breweries can sell their products in tasting rooms.

Tasting rooms are different than bars. A bar buys products from lots of different makers and sells them. A tasting room serves its own product.

In many cases, those rooms are contained within the various buildings where the beer is actually made.

Take, for example, 3 Daughters Brewing. There’s a quaint bar area where patrons can order up one of any number of brews. It looks like a bar. There’s a room with ping-pong tables, kind of like some bars might have. Then there’s an area with other games – darts, corn hole, giant Jenga. Behind that, giant cisterns full of beer being brewed and stacks and stacks of freshly canned brews.

But years ago, 3 Daughters wouldn’t have been allowed to do that – and what a shame that would have been for folks who love nothing more than smashing some ping-pong balls whilst holding a beverage.

“Tasting rooms” were made legal thanks to big beer’s biggest beer — Anheuser-Busch. It  wanted to be able to set up beer tasting rooms at Busch Gardens. So the state passed a law under the tourism clause to make it happen.

Tasting rooms were a go because they could prove some use to the state’s bustling tourist industry.

“At what point could someone argue craft beer tasting rooms aren’t a benefit to tourism,” Williams asked. “It just left it sort of up in the air.”

The new law that will take effect in July makes tasting rooms legal without having to classify them as having some value. Brewers won’t have to worry about proving their establishment creates a tourist draw because their rooms are just plain legal.

But even that came with a cost. The bill also limits how many tasting rooms a brewer can have to just eight locations.

“It isn’t such a bid deal for us, but for our big brothers like Cigar City,“ Williams trailed off noting Cigar City already has five locations. “They could only open three more.”

The problem, Williams said, is in representation. He said craft brewers have one lobbyist working on their behalf in Tallahassee. Big Beer has more than a dozen.

(Editor’s note: There is more than one lobbyist advocating on behalf of craft beer.)

As craft beer becomes more and more popular, the big beer brands like Bud and Miller have had to get creative to continue raking in profits.

There was, of course, the controversial Bud Superbowl commercial praising macro breweries while at the same time mocking beer snobs as mustachioed hipsters who, and this was spun as a bad thing, sip their beer.

Instead the effort came off a bit silly and made the beer giant look like a bunch of big jerks – or to be promoting beer-guzzling frat parties.

In any case, their efforts also included stomping out competition. That included pushing legislation that made it more difficult for small breweries competing for a slice of the beer pie to sell their products.

Regardless of the potential challenges in the new bill, Williams said it’s still a win and he looks forward to selling the half-gallon growlers.

He also doesn’t see similar problems cropping up like this again.

“Senators might vote on the floor to say that they don’t want to have tasting rooms, but when they come back to their districts that is a very hard argument and very unpopular,” Williams said. “You don’t want to mess with people’s spirits.”

The bill also contains some safety nets, including a label describing what kind of beer is in the growler and a seal that keeps anyone from imbibing right away. At 3 Daughters that is a plastic ring secured to the growler with a heat torch. The plastic comes off with a simple tug at a corner.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email [email protected]

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