One of the key images from the beer world's battle against COVID-19 was the growler – and other vessels repurposed to get beer from kegs into drinkers' hands once pubs and bars were closed. However, the longevity of the growler renaissance will soon be tested after the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) announced that the flexibility around alcohol repackaging introduced last autumn will come to an end at the start of February.
Details of the changes can be found here and also relate to the production of hand sanitiser; for many brewers, venues and growler fans, however, it's the changes in tax relating to the repackaging of alcohol that will matter most. From February 1, the rules around filling growlers reverts to the situation pre-COVID, meaning venues without an excise manufacturer licence will no longer able to fill growlers straight from kegs, and breweries will potentially need to pay extra excise on their fills.
While venue and brewery doors are now back open, the popularity of growlers has remained strong at many, with Jason Cameron (pictured below), who runs the beer distributor Maverick Imports and Near & Far Bar in Fitzroy, says their growler trade – which even included a milkman like delivery service – has slowed but not stopped.
“For particular customers,” he says, “it’s sort of become an ingrained part of their week where they come in on Thursday or Friday with their growler.”
Given the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality and beer industries, he’d like to see the relaxed rules extended, if not removed altogether.
“The old tax laws on it were pretty confusing to be honest and [changing back] will pretty much snuff it out,” Jason says, adding that he isn't aware of any unintended consequences to have arisen from the sudden popularity of growlers.
“The sky hasn’t caved in and there hasn’t really been any negative impact on any part of the beer industry as far as I can tell," he says. "I don’t think it’s stopped anyone buying packaged beer and it’s probably a rule that doesn’t need to be in place.”
He says knowing you can rely on growlers helps remove the uncertainty bar owners still feel around buying kegs, particularly given the sudden lockdowns we’ve seen in the past month.
“It’s a fallback position if there are more lockdowns,” Jason says. “We saw a lockdown in Brisbane [recently] and Melbourne is barely two months out of a major lockdown. If you get stuck in lockdown with no access to growlers, then you’re stuffed basically.”
The Independent Brewers Association’s general manager, Kylie Lethbridge, says the organisation was disappointed with the changes too. The IBA is part of the ATO Alcohol Stakeholder Group, and Kylie has previously expressed the association's view that the current situation should be allowed to remain in place.
“I’d said it would be really great if we could continue that because recovery will take some time,” she told The Crafty Pint.
“Some of our breweries have indicated years for recovery. It doesn’t mean that because the doors are open and some of the borders are open that all of a sudden they’re flush and don’t need any further assistance.”
Kylie says that, while the change in the regulations to pre-pandemic arrangements isn’t a huge surprise, it is disappointing, particularly given the tax burden breweries continue to face.
“Many breweries were given the opportunity to defer their excise debt while the pandemic was happening and they’re still paying that off,” she says. “In some instances, they’ll be paying that off for quite some time as well as trying to keep up with the current tax.”
Yet, despite the disappointment at this week's announcement, she believes there have been benefits to come from the situation.
“From a positive perspective," she says, "it has helped some members see that growlers might be an opportunity for them or see a different way of doing business.”