TALLAHASSEE-- Florida allows craft breweries to fill and sell unlimited amounts of gallon- and quart-sized beer jugs, popularly called growlers. But half-gallon growlers, the most-popular size in the 47 other states that allow them, are banned.
That has long vexed the typically small Florida craft beer makers, who ask: Why does the Legislature refuse to change a law it can't explain and that seemingly goes against its opposition to overregulation in other industries?
"I don't know," Senate President Don Gaetz said when recently asked by The Associated Press why half-gallon growlers are illegal.
But the Panhandle Republican, who says he's a free-market, anti-regulation, pro-business legislator, knows why the repeal is facing long odds again this year: a friend and major GOP donor, who happens to be a Budweiser distributor, asked him to support a bill that includes several provisions that the craft beer industry says will slow their rapid growth and could cause some to close.
Goes against his principles
While that sounds at odds with his principles, Gaetz acknowledged he will support whatever Anheuser-Busch InBev distributor Lewis Bear tells him to support.
"I'm with the beer distributors in my district," Gaetz said recently. "That's a very important issue because one of my very best friends is an Anheuser-Busch distributor and he never talks to me about his business. It's always about what are we going to do for disabled children, what are we going to do for the arts, what are we going to do for economic development. But this time he's talking about growlers."
Bear, his company and his family have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to political committees and candidates, including more than $260,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $31,000 to GOP Gov. Rick Scott's campaign committee.
Beer money and campaigns
On top of that, political committees supported by Anheuser-Busch distributors and run by their lobbyist, Mitch Rubin, have donated about $1 million to candidates and political committees over the years, to both Republicans and Democrats. Neither Bear nor Rubin returned numerous calls for comment.
"That's so sad," said Jennifer Gratz, an owner of the Fort Myers Brewing Co., which opened last year. "Here we have the Senate president who's supposed to represent all of us in Florida and instead he's talking about just supporting his buddy who happens to be a large donor."
Distributors for the other major national beer company, MillerCoors, support legalizing half-gallon growlers.
If Florida makes half-gallon growlers legal, Bear wants strings attached that craft brewers say will hurt an industry that's grown from six breweries in 2007 to 50 last year and with another 28 getting ready to open this year.
Based on states that have had long-established craft brewing industries, Florida's population could eventually support 500 craft breweries, according to a University of Florida study of the industry commissioned by the Florida Brewers Guild.
But those soaring sales for craft beers pose competition for mass-produced beers like Budweiser.
Gaetz said he hoped a bill sponsored by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-New Port Richey, dealing with growlers and craft breweries would get a Senate vote. But while Simpson met with Bear and was given bill language, he never filed it. Neither did any other senator.
While the bill would have legalized half-gallon containers, it would place other restrictions on breweries.
Sales of full-gallon containers would have been banned. Brewers would have been prevented from selling their products in bottles, cans and kegs at the brewery. The legislation would have also stopped brewers from selling beers they make in collaboration with other brewers and would have prohibited them having guest taps from which they sell other brewers' beer.
Proposal for standards
The proposal also would have set standards for labeling, sanitizing and sealing growlers that the Florida Brewers Guild believes are excessive. While there is no active bill in the Senate, it could re-emerge as a committee bill or an amendment to a growler bill that brewers support.
"It's extremely insulting and it's extraordinarily punitive," said Josh Aubuchon, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Brewers Guild. "It's so anti-free market, anti-consumer ... For no reason, in order for the craft breweries to get something positive, they have to give up something. It's ludicrous."
The Anheuser-Busch InBev distributors, who are independent of the brewing giant itself, also prepared a bill similar to Simpson's. Republican Rep. Ray Rodrigues of Fort Myers was asked to sponsor it.
Rodrigues didn't return three messages on his cellphone and one at his office seeking comment. Gratz's repeated attempts to contact Rodrigues about the issue also were unsuccessful.
"To have someone working against you who doesn't even want to take the time to sit down with you, it says a lot about him as a legislator and about him as a person," Gatz said.