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Beer and Wine To-go: Legality of Growlers in Wisconsin

 If you haven’t had the pleasure of ordering a malt beverage to-go, then you likely haven’t had the chance to enjoy a growler.  Growlers are simply jugs made from glass, stainless steel, or ceramic and the preferred container utilized by breweries and brewpubs to sell take-out beer.

The origin of growlers dates back to the late 1800s when beer was carried by pail from the local tavern to home.  The term “growler” is rumored to have come from the sound of carbon dioxide escaping from the pail lid.  Once prohibition took hold in the 1920s, growlers were outlawed and did not make a comeback until the 1930s when children often brought beer in growlers to workers at lunch or their parents at dinnertime.  The popularity of growlers only resurged in the 1980s when brothers Charlie and Ernie Otto reintroduced the growler as a way to sell craft beer prior to their brewery’s ability to bottle.  With growlers growing in popularity, how does ordering beer to-go fit into our local liquor laws?

In Wisconsin, Class “B” licensees (beer license) may sell fermented malt beverages for off-premise consumption. Wis. Stat. 125.26(1).  This authorizes establishments across the state to sell beer and other fermented malt beverages in growlers.  But what about wine and intoxicating liquors?  In municipalities that have elected by ordinance to follow Wis. Stat. 125.51(3)(b), a “Class B” licensee (intoxicating liquor license) may sell wine off-premise “in the original package or otherwise” in any quantity, but may only sell intoxicating liquor “to be consumed by the glass” on premise or off-premise “in the original package or container”.   The words “or otherwise” have been interpreted by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue to permit growler packaging.  Because the statute permits each municipality to elect to follow this paragraph, it’s essential to look to each municipal’s local ordinances to determine whether it’s lawful to sell growlers of wine for off-premise consumption.  For example, both Madison and Milwaukee have adopted Wis. Stat. 125.51(3)(b), but Green Bay has not. 

It’s important to note that the ability to take home a bottle of wine that’s half drunk falls under a different portion of the statute that requires “Class B” and “Class C” licensees (Wine license) to “securely reinsert the cork into the bottle to the point where the top of the cork is even with the top of the bottle” not between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. Wis. Stat. 125.51(3r)3, 125.68(4)(c)(3).   Many restaurants in Wisconsin offer this same option for bottles of sake, which is included in the definition of wine pursuant to Wis. Stat. 125.02(22). 

Returning to our topic of growlers: the bottling of beer to-go for off-premise consumption is permitted across the state for Class “B” license holders.  Whether a “Class C” licensee can sell growlers of wine to-go boils down to the local ordinance and whether the municipality has adopted the section of the Wisconsin statute that permits such sales. And most importantly, no law or ordinance permits the re-bottling of intoxicating liquors to-go for off-premise enjoyment.   

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

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