Once, Baltimoreans could stop by the corner tavern and take away a container of their favorite brew, straight from the tap. The sound those pails made as they slid empty down the bar for refills is said to be how they got their name.
Growlers, which in recent decades have taken the form of 2-liter brown-glass jugs, have been experiencing a resurgence among beer enthusiasts looking for their favorite microbrews or those who just want fresh draft beer at home. But many Maryland brewers and restaurant owners are prohibited from selling growlers and are pushing for a change in state law.
Statewide restrictions limit the sale of growlers to brew pubs that make their own beer on the premises and sell food, excluding bars and most restaurants. Only 15 establishments in Maryland have such a license, and lawmakers from Baltimore City and Howard County want to expand sales.
Hugh Sisson, general partner of Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe, is working with state legislators to refine the growler law in Baltimore. He helped lead efforts in the 1980s to get laws changed to allow the first brew pub in the state, and now he’s hoping he can sell growlers of his Heavy Seas Beer at a new restaurant, Heavy Seas Ale House, which is scheduled to open Feb. 15.
He said he doesn’t want Maryland to fall behind as other states move to more flexible laws for growlers. In Buffalo, for instance, Sunoco gas stations have had pilot projects allowing patrons to fill up their car and their growler in one stop.
“It seems to be an evolving trend across the country,” Sisson said.
While many bars in Maryland sell carry-out beer, wine and liquor, it is always in sealed bottles or cans. Though people in the industry say the law is not clear, the state considers growlers to be refillable containers, which require a different license. Two bills proposed in Annapolis would allow licensed restaurants in Baltimore City and Howard County to fill growlers intended to be opened at home.
State Sen. William “Bill” C. Ferguson IV, a Democrat who represents Baltimore’s waterfront, has introduced what he terms a “very limited” bill that would create a “refillable container license” for restaurants in the city and would exclude bars that do not serve food. The bill requires General Assembly approval, as would a similar bill planned in Howard.
At the Brewer’s Art in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, owner Tom Creegan said the proposed change could “help expand craft beer to more people, new people. We make beer. If more want to sell it, the more, the merrier.”
While states have varying laws on beer-to-go options, especially between breweries and restaurants, the demand for craft beer is growing beyond self-professed beer snobs.
“I think one of the appeals for the beer drinker is it’s fresh beer and you can take it on home. . . . The idea of being able to pour draft beer at home,” said Paul Gatza, director of Brewers Association in Colorado, a national organization for craft brewers.
“Another appeal is that it’s a reusable glass container; it skips recycling,” he said.
Beer pails were common in Baltimore when the city had many of its own local breweries. But after World War II, refrigeration and bottling practices improved, and growlers faded out of style.
“It went away because nobody wanted it,” said Lou Berman, 63, a trade protection manager for the state Comptroller’s Office, which enforces alcohol and tobacco laws. “It just went out of style.”
Until microbreweries began popping up across the country, he said, there wasn’t any need for a system to regulate growlers, which are complicated because they fall between two major classes of liquor licenses: off-premise and on-premise.
Unlike a six-pack, the growler is filled from the tap, which Berman said makes the seller part manufacturer — subject to different tax and license requirements.
Ferguson said he considered a bill that would change the law throughout the state but decided to start in Baltimore and let counties follow.
“A lot of places just don’t address it,” he said.