Bill would serve up relaxed rules for Microbrews

Posted April 10, 2009, at 5:33 p.m.

For many beer aficionados, bellying up to a new bar to scan the selection of local brews is akin to being a kid with a dollar in the candy aisle.

But while there’s nothing requiring the candy bar to be eaten on the spot, the beer that flows from the taps of Maine’s nearly two dozen brew pubs is less portable in the eyes of state regulators. That would change under a bill working its way through the Legislature.

The bill, LD 904, would allow brew pubs to sell 64-ounce containers — called “growlers” — on premises to patrons who want to take some swill home with them.

Backers of the measure claim making it easier for brew pubs to sell growlers on site will help support a small but growing Maine industry that is developing a national reputation for quality, thanks in large part to beer-loving tourists.

“There is nothing better than going to a place where you’ve never been before, sampling some of their delicious brews and saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to bring some of this home with me,’” Rep. Benjamin Marriner Pratt, D-Eddington, told members of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee recently.

Sponsor Rep. Nancy Smith, D-Monmouth, said her growler bill supports the growing “buy local” movement in Maine and aims to give another boost to small businesses.

“You get a fresh beer, not a canned or bottled beer, and you are supporting a business in your local community,” Smith said Friday.

Supporters also say growlers are models of recycling since the bottles, which typically come with a hefty deposit, are intended to be refilled over and over again. Some die-hard microbrew lovers even collect the large, occasionally elaborate bottles from around the country, which pub owners said helps spread the word about their brew even farther.

Under current law, Maine brew pubs — that is, establishments that make and serve their own beer — are only allowed to sell half-gallon growlers at a “second entrance.” For many smaller brew pubs, that would mean either selling growlers out of their back door — something several brewers were clearly uncomfortable with — or having to operate a storefront separate from the bar area.

LD 904, which won unanimous support from the committee this week, would allow bartenders to fill growlers directly from the tap — something beer buffs claim typically ensures the freshest brew.

Geoff Houghton, owner of the popular Hallowell brew pub The Liberal Cup, said it was really a matter of semantics because establishments can already sell growlers to the public. But right now, he would be restricted to selling out of his back door.

Houghton told committee members that the most common question he gets from customers is why they can’t lug a jug of his beer back home.

“People are used to being able to get growlers in other states, so it’s a tough question for me to answer,” he said.

Language tacked onto the bill by the committee would require bartenders to seal the growlers after filling as a way for law enforcement officers to tell whether the purchaser tapped into the beer before getting home.

That amendment, as well as another banning growler sales after 10 p.m., was intended to address concerns that allowing sales of the half-gallon containers could encourage drunken driving.

During the public hearing before the amendments, Lt. David Bowler with the Department of Public Safety’s liquor license and compliance division warned that the bill could “give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘one for the road.’”

But Smith said people intent on drinking and driving at the same time can already buy alcohol at convenience stores after leaving a bar. She and Pratt — a paramedic and firefighter who sees first-hand the problems of drunken driving — as well as other supporters said they don’t believe the sale of growlers encourages such behavior.

“If I thought that was true, I wouldn’t have brought the bill forward,” said Smith.

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