Editors’ Note: On April 8, an updated guidance from the Liquor Enforcement Division further changed one of the regulations outlined below. On-premise retailers and retail liquor establishments are now able to fill growlers and crowlers, though they cannot refill any containers. The bulletin states these must be new, unused containers and may not exceed 64 ounces.

It feels a lot like the Wild West when it comes to drinking culture in Denver these days. (Not that we’re complaining.) We can buy craft cocktails to go from restaurants around town; local breweries are delivering beer straight to our front doors; and our neighbors are all carrying roadies on their daily walks. (Note: That last one is still not legal.)

Last week, the state’s Liquor Enforcement Division (LED) decided it might be apt to clarify some of its guidelines—particularly as they relate to growlers and crowlers. A quick reminder: Growlers are refillable glass jugs with twist-off caps. Crowlers are essentially oversized cans, typically 32 ounces; they require a crowler sealing machine and are not refillable.

So here’s the latest scoop: On-premise retailers and retail liquor establishments—places like restaurants and taverns—cannot refill growlers or even fill their own crowlers. Those businesses can, however, fill other containers, like plastic cups (which must have lids and LED’s warning label attached), with beer from a tap or keg and sell it for off-premise consumption. Restaurants and bars are also permitted to continue selling sealed cans and bottles to-go. This is consistent with the original liquor code, says Shawnee Adelson, executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild.

Manufacturers and malt liquor manufacturers with an onsite wholesale sales room—aka, places that make their own beer—are still permitted to refill growlers and fill crowlers. “Those have usually only been refilled by the manufacturing tier and malt liquor manufacturers. We are remaining consistent that those should be filled and refilled in that arena. They have specific requirements for sanitation,” says Michelle Stone-Principato, deputy director of the LED. (A crowler shortage has led some breweries to turn to traditional canning instead, leading producers like Bierstadt Lagerhaus to offer their brews in cans for the first time.)

“Brewers are not trying to pit themselves against restaurants or bars,” Adelson notes. “Whatever LED decides because of the code, we recognize that it’s a very intertwined industry. We’re all reliant on each other.”

This update to emergency regulations has frustrated some, including Chris Black, owner of Falling Rock Tap House. Because the downtown venue is classified as a restaurant, the recent clarifications mean that Black can’t refill growlers or fill crowlers even if he has a machine to do so. With 94 taps, he has a lot of inventory to go through, particularly if he has to sell it pint by pint. Pints account for more than 60 percent of his overall business and more than 80 percent of his alcohol sales. Black says about 60 of Falling Rock’s taps won’t be sellable after a 60- or 90-day shutdown. “The primary goal for what we’re doing right now is getting rid of inventory we already had in house, beer we paid for that won’t be in good shape by the time we’re able to open back up,” he says.

Falling Rock doesn’t sell growlers, but Black has had customers stop by wanting to refill theirs; Black saw growler sales as a means to stay in business and is concerned about what will happen now that he can’t offer that service. He’s also irked by the fact that it’s the LED and not the public health department raising cleanliness concerns—something he would have found “more reasonable.” All he wants, he says, is a “level playing field” and for stakeholders to be part of the conversation before these regulations are announced. “We’re trying to be as legit as we humanly can,” he says. “We’re trying to be here for the long haul.”

Stone-Principato is aware that “…all three tiers of the liquor industry are hurting due to this COVID-19 health and safety crisis. We’re trying to help by giving reasonable accommodations,” she says. “On-premise accounts have been given reasonable accommodations [to] sustain their businesses, and we want to make sure the manufacturing tier is able to keep running.”

Since Mayor Michael Hancock announced the closure of all of the city’s restaurants and bars on March 17, many are struggling to make ends meet while pivoting to a takeout and delivery model. Berkeley’s Empourium Brewing Company—which turned a year old on March 29—relied on pint sales in its taproom and patio, distributing its beers through a few keg accounts to local restaurants and bars. Now, its only source of revenue is curbside crowlers. They ran out of their own crowler supply early on and have had to buy unbranded crowlers from fellow breweries while awaiting another shipment. “It really changed everything for us,” says co-owner Sara Fetzer. “I think we’ll be OK. We’ll make it out and see the other side of this, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy.” She and co-owner (and husband) Greg are looking into delivery logistics, but are still trying to figure out the insurance and sales tax licensing requirements.

Denver has temporarily relaxed a number of rules to try and help the food and beverage industry. Most recently, on March 20, Governor Jared Polis announced that bars, restaurants, brewpubs, and distillery pubs would be allowed to deliver alcohol alongside food. On April 6, the governor extended that order to permit wineries, breweries, distilleries with approved sales rooms to sell “the types of alcohol beverages they are currently licensed to sell in their licensed premises, including mixed drinks…” for off-premise consumption via takeout and delivery. Booze delivery cannot occur via a third-party, though, so be sure to connect directly with the business you want to order from.

Black concedes that being able to sell alcohol at all during this unprecedented time helps. “It allows us to get rid of some inventory that we have, bring a little bit of cash in. It’s probably going to make it more likely that businesses will be able to survive this,” he says, but adds, “When you keep changing the rules, it just throws more stress into an already stressful situation.”

Questions about current Colorado liquor regulations? Email dor_led@state.co.us.

Falling Rock Tap House is open Friday (4 to 7 p.m.) and Saturday and Sunday (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) for food and beer to-go. Call in your order at 303-293-8338 and a staffer will bring it to your car.

The Empourium Brewing Company is selling its crowlers curbside from 2 to 6 p.m. every day. Swing by or order ahead by calling 720-361-2973 or emailing orders@theempourium.com.

Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer
Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.