The Bizarro World of beer growlers righted by local superheroes

On March 11, 2016, Moon River Brewing Co. in Savannah became the first brewpub in the state of Georgia to fill and sell a beer growler. On March 22, Five Seasons North in Alpharetta became the second to sell its beer to go. And on March 25, Hop Alley in Alpharetta became the third.

If you live in almost any other state, those dates might not seem like historical facts worth noting. But for many years now, I’ve called Georgia a growler Bizarro World, where, as in DC Comics, everything wrong is right.

In fact, looking at a column I wrote back in 2013, I explained why I wasn't a fan of the proliferation of growler shops and stations in the state. I'd always thought of growlers as something you grab as a sample or souvenir while you're visiting a brewery or brewpub somewhere.

In other words, most of the time, in most places, growler sales have been connected to local businesses that brew beer. Last year, the Georgia Legislature finally seemed to come around to that point of view, passing a bill that finally allowed production breweries to sell growlers.

Oddly, though, after the law went into effect, it was essentially quashed by some new Department of Revenue regulations. And the Legislature saw fit to leave brewpubs out of the law altogether, banishing the most logical business to sell beer to go to the most bizarre corner of growler Bizarro World.

Then, in March, something remarkable happened. A few beer-loving lawyers and brewpub owners started taking a closer look at Georgia law. Suddenly, like Dorothy clicking her heels in Oz, it seemed that brewpubs always had the power to sell growlers. They just had to discover it for themselves — and get a little help from local governments.

What will happen next is anybody’s guess, given the legislative and regulatory attitudes toward small breweries in Georgia.

But with any luck, it looks like we’ve turned a corner, and in addition to Savannah and Alpharetta, cities like Atlanta, Decatur and Sandy Springs may soon vote to allow brewpubs to sell growlers. Maybe more important, Georgia Department of Revenue Commissioner Lynne Riley has weighed in and said that leaving it up to municipalities is just fine with her.

Asked about my growler Bizarro World theory, John Pinkerton, the former head of the Georgia Craft Brewers Guild and the owner/brewer of Moon River, said he was optimistic about the future but remains unsatisfied with the current state of Georgia's brewery laws.

“The Bizarro World thing still remains,” Pinkerton said. “But from where I’m standing, right now, I’m just trying to be gracious and get busy selling some growlers. And I do want show my appreciation for the cooperation of commissioner Riley. She called me personally on March 11 and let me know it would be OK. And then we had a great big toast with our Swamp Fox IPA.”

Dave Larkworthy, the chef and co-owner of Five Seasons North, had a similar reaction when his brewpub got its license and poured its first growler in Alpharetta.

“The City Council approved it 7-0, there was no opposition, there were no lobbyists,” Larkworthy said. “It was amazing how well the whole process worked. I went and picked up the license the next afternoon, and that night we started pouring growlers.

“In fact, I took home a growler of our Dark Star stout and drank it with my wife. I’ve had many great beers from Five Seasons over many, many years, but it was one of the tastiest ever. I was drinking my beer in the comfort of my house and it was amazing.”