Washingtonians who want to take home a growler of their favorite local beer, wine, cider or mead from their local farmers market may get that chance if state lawmakers approve two House bills this session.
The state has 900 wineries contributing roughly $2.1 billion to the state economy. In 2016, 350 growers harvested 270,000 tons of grapes and produced 17.5 million cases of wine. The state also features 375 microbreweries, and the Washington Beer Commission estimates a new one opens every 10 days.
One way for up-and-coming brewers and wine producers to build a clientele base is by offering samples at farmers markets. However, right now they are not allowed to fill growlers, sanitized containers brought either by the customer or the business; they also can’t sell “strong beer” that has an alcohol content higher than eight percent.
HB 2419 would change that by allowing microbreweries and wineries to fill and sell growlers of their own products, while repealing the strong beer prohibition. Sponsored by Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-47), the bill passed in the House 78-17 and has been referred to the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee.
At a January 16 public hearing of Commerce & Gaming, Hargrove told colleagues that the inability to fill growlers at farmers markets frustrates startup microbrewers. “They (customers) say ‘oh we love that! Fill up my growler!’ They say ‘Sorry, nope can’t do that.’ It’s a frustration (also) for the customer. They can’t get what they were just drinking.
“Small breweries have to bring bottles that they prepackaged…and kind of guess of how much they’re going to sell there,” he added. “If they guess too much, then they’ve bottled this beer unnecessarily early. Or they made too little, then they didn’t make a profit because they could have sold some more.”
That view was reinforced by Annie McGrath, executive director for the Washington Brewers Guild. She told panel members at the public hearing the “vast majority” of their members are “small and independent” businesses. A lot of people in the business are brand new. “Over a third of our Washington brewers opened their doors in the last three years, and some of them aren’t even packaging product yet. This would give them a new outlet to reach customers in those very early days.”
One of those breweries is the Kent-based Four Horsemen. Master brewer Dane Scarimbolo told lawmakers on January 16 that “nobody’s allowed to even bring a keg to sample. It’s all prepackaged. In a small brewery where you don’t have the machine equipment to be able to package in large amounts for bottles, being able to fill growlers for the customers is a crucial phase for a small business starting up in utilizing farmers markets to start their breweries and wineries.”
Though not as large as microbreweries or wineries, Washington’s mead industry is the third largest in the country. Last year, Washington became the first state to codify the fermented beverage into law.
Chris Webber with the Washington Mead Alliance told panel members at the January 16 public hearing that “we are growing, and this bill would have a significant impact on a lot of producers.”
Since Washington voters approved Initiative 1183 in 2012, there’s been a push for further deregulation of the state’s booming microbrew, wine and cider industry. Last year, legislators passed HB 1351 redeciding licensing burdens for grocery store and wine or beer specialty stores. Two House bills introduced this session could now ease restrictions around the sale of beer, wine and cider growlers.
Another bill moving through the legislature is HB 1039, introduced last session by Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-49). It would allow wineries to sell their wine in growlers, as well. Currently, wineries can only offer their wine in bottles. Reintroduced this year, it passed out of the House Committee on Commerce & Gaming on January 23 and has been referred to the Rules Committee for review. Its Senate companion bill is SB 5279, introduced by Sen. Judy Warnick (R-13); no public hearing was scheduled for it in Labor & Commerce before the cutoff date.