I remember buying beer by the pound this way in Kentucky back in the 1980s: bring in your jug (I had a plastic milk jug, cleaned out and dried), have it weighed empty, fill it from the tap of your choice (I got Busch, just for the experience), have it weighed full, and pay the poundage fee on the difference. Brewpubs and the bars and bottleshops that do sell growlers in the Commonwealth generally only fill two sizes, half-gallon and two-liter, which simplifies the pricing.
The devil is in the details. Some places will fill practically anything; my Sly Fox Grisette, for instance, is in a growler clearly labeled as Iron Hill. Some places will not fill anything but their own growlers; not even unlabeled ones. Some compromise by slapping their own label on whatever growler you bring in. Some places insist on "sealing" the screw-on caps with a heat-shrink plastic band or tape; some don't. Some places won't do it. Weyerbacher, for a while, would only fill gallon growlers.
Why all the confusion? Check the Code...I dare ya.
What to do about growlers?
This is a very small thing, to be sure. Growlers are a tiny little part of a relatively small niche of Pennsylvania's beer sales, which are about as privatized as it gets in the Commonwealth...but even here, the PLCB gets involved. Talk to different brewpub servers and brewers, talk to bar owners, talk to deli license guys, and you'll soon find out that the PLCB has all kinds of rules about growlers.
Or do they? I've been combing the PA Liquor Code for the past week, and I've got a request into the LCB itself. But I can't find any reference to this kind of off-premises sale of draft beer --about labeling, or sealing -- except for this, about containers and packages from the manufacturer which does kind of mention it, in context of sales at breweries and brewpubs:
SECTION 4-440. Sales by manufacturers of malt or brewed beverages; minimum quantities
No manufacturer shall sell any malt or brewed beverages for consumption on the premises where sold, nor sell or deliver any such malt or brewed beverages in other than original containers approved as to capacity by the board, nor in quantities of less than a case or original containers containing sixty-four ounces or more which may be sold separately; nor shall any manufacturer maintain or operate within the Commonwealth any place or places other than the place or places covered by his or its license where malt or brewed beverages are sold or where orders are taken.
As for actual filling and selling... There's language about cleaning the taplines, about putting clear labeling on the tap knobs, about off-premise sales...but nothing about growlers.
Until I hear otherwise from the PLCB, I'm going to have to assume that there is no allowance for growlers in the Code other than that they should be at least 64 oz. That in itself would be fine: why exactly do we need such regulation? The bartender almost always fills the thing right in front of you, so you know what you're getting and labeling would be superfluous (though useful if you were getting multiples: "Licensee shall provide a Sharpie and labels so customer doesn't open the Pilsner instead of the Maibock", now that would be a good law), the cleaning is usually up to you as much as to them.
But the problem is...if there is no law about growlers, what's all this stuff brewers tell me they're hearing from their local enforcement officer? "Interpretation"? Of what? Tea leaves? There is no law to interpret! All you're really doing is selling a big glass (or small glass keg), so there's no regulation needed, but where do these guys get away making stuff up?
The PLCB should be abolished because of the arbitrary nature of the interpretation of the PA Liquor Code, brought on by the density of the Code and the nigh-unrestricted power of the local PLCB enforcement agents. Growlers are harmless sales of beer; any policy on their sale should be left up to the individual licensee.
Common sense in the Code, common sense in its enforcement. That's what's needed.
Photo credit: Adem Tepedelen (thanks to Scott @ East End for permission!) *and I did edit the original post: thanks to Scott again for pointing me to that 64 oz. reference.