Growlers Are Growing Up

Changing regulations and consumer desire for fresh craft brews are broadening beer-to-go options.

Growlers have become so popular that alternatives like the pressurized uKeg by GrowlerWerks (pictured) are gaining a following.
Growlers have become so popular that alternatives like the pressurized uKeg by GrowlerWerks (pictured) are gaining a following. (Photo by Johann Leiter)

The explosion of craft beer over the past decade has brought on many changes. Modifications of state laws have created a thriving brewpub culture, and growlers are now an essential accessory for serious craft beer drinkers. Historically, consumers used the refillable containers—usually made of glass and ranging in size from 32 ounces to 128 ounces—to take home fresh beer from a local pub. These days, growlers are employed by small producers seeking to save money on packaging, by brewpubs looking to boost bar tabs and by retailers hoping to lure craft beer aficionados. Most operators sell empty growlers for a one-time fee of a few dollars and charge by the beer for subsequent fills.

Kent Couch realized he needed to make a change to capture this trend and installed a growler bar in the Bend, Oregon, convenience store he co-owned with his son, Kizer. “We were going to lose packaged beer sales if we didn’t tap into the craft beer world more,” he says. “Craft breweries are slow to bottle, so they like the idea of selling from a tap.” After gaining approval to fill growlers from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, The Growler Guys debuted in Bend in 2012. “It just exploded,” Couch says. “We ended up dedicating about 1,600 square feet in the store and put in 36 taps, but it wasn’t enough. Customers were coming from several hundred miles away just to experience it.” The company began franchising throughout the Pacific Northwest, and there are currently 10 locations, with active expansion in the works. Most are stand-alone units that average 48 taps, although the newest models boast 60 taps across craft beer, cider and kombucha.

Florida’s ABC Fine Wine & Spirits created a proprietary growler station called the Brew Stop.
Florida’s ABC Fine Wine & Spirits created a proprietary growler station called the Brew Stop.

Many existing retailers have signed on for custom options from Irvine, California–based The Growler Station. The company’s Growler Station Express concept is a “turnkey, store-in-store solution for any existing retailer who wants to start selling growlers, but has no experience with it,” says Tony Lane, cofounder and executive vice president of The Growler Station Distributor Group. The company has developed a customizable kiosk that includes a digital menu linked to a central database of beers, an iPad station and the Pegas counter-pressure filling system, which ranges from four to 24 taps. “We go in with a template, but we’re completely willing to modify and customize for each customer,” Lane explains. “We look at it as a partnership.” Installing a Growler Station Express takes as little as two weeks, and the company’s kiosks can be found in independent stores and in large grocery chains like Hy-Vee and Albertsons. There are currently about 125 units in 24 states nationwide.

A few years ago, Florida’s 142-unit ABC Fine Wine & Spirits opted to install its own custom growler-filling station, called the Brew Stop. “It’s an extension of what we’ve been doing to attract craft beer consumers,” explains chief marketing officer Bob Gibson. “The Brew Stop is a long-term investment in growing that part of the business.” He adds that since grocery and convenience stores have been increasing their selection of packaged craft beer in recent years, ABC is hoping the Brew Stop will set the retail chain apart from its competitors. “We can offer our customers beers that they could otherwise only purchase by visiting a brewery or taproom,” Gibson says.

Until this past summer, Florida prohibited 64-ounce growlers—easily the most popular size—and Gibson notes that the change has brought on a new wave of curious consumers who are buying both 64-ounce and 32-ounce containers. “Craft beer lovers know what a growler is, but the rest of the market needs some education,” he says. “Once people try growlers, they love them. It’s a great way to reach a customer who wouldn’t think of buying a local craft beer in a store.” About 20 ABC units have a Brew Stop station, and the company plans to continue installing them in new and renovated units over the next several years.

The most popular options for growler fills are local craft beers. Warwick, New York’s Craft Beer Cellar (menu pictured) offers eight varieties.
The most popular options for growler fills are local craft beers. Warwick, New York’s Craft Beer Cellar (menu pictured) offers eight varieties.

Specialty Sales

Purveyors agree that specialty beers are the way to go for growlers. “We make a lot of limited-edition beers in small batches that are highly sought after,” says Dawn Bolen, media relations and marketing assistant of Boise, Idaho’s Sockeye Brewing Co. “Since we brew with ingredients that are mostly grown in Idaho, people like coming in to get a growler of something that’s truly local.” The company offers growler sales at its two brewpubs.

For Craft Beer Cellar, a chain of franchise stores spanning 13 states and Washington, D.C., local beers make up about three-quarters of the taps in the units that sell growlers—a higher proportion than in the overall packaged beer selection. Cofounder Suzanne Schalow explains that growler sales aren’t an option in all locations due to varying state laws, but the units that offer them have met with success. “We’re beer geeks, so we’re deep in the draft world,” she says. “We’ve made sure that the systems have proper carbon dioxide pressure for the beer style, correct faucets and good cleaning processes.” Currently, four units of Craft Beer Cellar offer growler service, and the company plans to include the feature in some future locations.

The Sunoco gas station convenience store chain debuted growler sales via its Craft Beer Exchange concept in New York in 2011, later expanding to South Carolina. “We saw the growing popularity of craft beer and wanted to do something different,” explains communications manager Jeff Shields. “We have a mix of regional and local craft beers across six to 12 taps.” Craft Beer Exchange units also offer mix-and-match six-packs of bottles, and Shields notes that the growler option has amplified sales of all beer. “It’s attracting new customers and increasing overall sales because it’s generating more interest in good craft beer,” he says.

Individual ABC Fine Wine units control what’s offered at the Brew Stop. “Each store is given the freedom to decide what to put on tap, so the selection varies widely,” Gibson explains. “Our directive is keep it local and keep it Florida.” He notes that tourists “demand local flavor. They want to find things they can’t purchase in a can or bottle.”

The Growler Guys locations also have varied options, but Couch estimates that there’s typically a 70-30 split between regional offerings and brews from beyond the Northwest, with a large proportion coming from hyper-local beers. “It drives business to have a lineup of locally made offerings,” he says. “There’s a difference in quality between prepackaged beer that might sit in a warehouse for months and getting a keg straight from the brewery.”

The Growler Station’s Lane agrees. “Offering local beers brings in new customers,” he says. “Growlers allow small brewers to grow with the retailer. The brewery may not have packaging capability, but it can supply kegs, and retailers throughout the state can offer that beer to a new customer base.”

For retailers looking to add growler sales, The Growler Station Express presents a customizable solution in a variety of sizes.
For retailers looking to add growler sales, The Growler Station Express presents a customizable solution in a variety of sizes.

Legal Confusion

Growler sales have big upside, but retailers and on-premise operators also have to contend with a few areas of possible concern, including different state laws. Regulations vary widely regarding who may fill and sell growlers and what kind of packaging is permitted. Some states, including Oregon, impose few restrictions. Other states, such as Massachusetts, only allow breweries and brewpubs to fill their own branded growlers. Retailers may sell prefilled growlers, but can’t put the beer in themselves. And in certain areas, a growler cap must be wrapped or taped as an additional seal or a surgeon general’s warning must appear on the package’s label.

But as growlers have become better known and more widespread, states are beginning to modify their regulations. “It takes a lot of work to change the laws,” notes Schalow of Craft Beer Cellar, which has its headquarters and seven stores in Massachusetts. Although retailers in the state can sell growlers that are already filled, that restriction means ceding control over how fresh the beer is. “We wouldn’t know when the growler was filled,” Schalow says, adding that many brewers are also reluctant to prepackage their draft beer without being sure it will reach the customer in a timely manner.

States like Idaho and Florida require retailers to shrink-wrap or tape over the growler cap before customers leave the venue. “We’re revisiting a lot of the laws here in Idaho because they’re pretty archaic,” Sockeye’s Bolen says. “There weren’t a lot of breweries until recently, so I think the state is trying to catch up with the laws.”

Lane says that The Growler Station tries to stay abreast of the various laws as they change. “We’ll contact the states when we hear that there might be legislation on the table,” he explains. “When we have a customer in a state whose laws we aren’t familiar with, we’ll take the initiative to see what information we can get.” The retailer remains responsible for ensuring legal compliance. Lane adds that changing regulations can lead to more interest in The Growler Station. “Iowa just changed its laws in July to allow retail growler filling, and we’re already being contacted by quite a few stores there,” he notes.

Another issue facing retailers is ensuring that the packaging is cleaned thoroughly, since customers often bring their own growlers to fill. Without proper cleaning and sanitizing, the flavor of the fresh beer can be tainted. “We never mind cleaning a growler in the store because we want to do the right thing by the brewers and their products,” says Craft Beer Cellar’s Schalow. “The question is how quickly we can get it done when it’s a busy Saturday afternoon and there are suddenly 10 growlers to sanitize.” Other retailers, including The Growler Guys and ABC Fine Wine, also clean and sanitize growlers before refilling. ABC even provides a new cap with every fill. “The caps are reusable, but they can be a failure point and let in oxygen,” Gibson notes.

The Crowler offers a portable, recyclable alternative to reusable glass growlers.
The Crowler offers a portable, recyclable alternative to reusable glass growlers.

Alternatives Abound

Growlers are moving beyond the traditional glass container to meet different consumer needs. Shawn Huff founded GrowlerWerks in 2013 after experiencing the disappointment of beer that had gone flat in a glass growler. The company’s signature product, the uKeg, is a pressurized growler with a tap handle for dispensing beer and comes in 64-ounce and 128-ounce sizes. Huff says it will keep beer fresh for several weeks after filling. “Any brewer will tell you that the freshest way to get your beer is from a keg, and we’re capturing that demand with the uKeg,” he says.

GrowlerWerks carried out a successful crowdfunding campaign via Kickstarter last year, and uKegs are currently in production and rolling out to supporters, retailers and breweries. Wholesale is a core component of the business. “We knew retailers, brewers and brewpubs would be interested in carrying our product because they currently sell glass growlers,” Huff explains. “The uKeg offers an alternative that keeps beer cold, fresh and carbonated. It’s also really durable, and we can customize it with laser engraving or a special tap handle.” Retail prices for the uKeg start at $129 for the basic 64-ounce version.

In collaboration with the can manufacturer Ball Corp., Oskar Blues Brewery introduced the Crowler can in 2013, and it’s caught on fast. “The Crowler is straightforward and accessible,” says Jeremy Rudolf, director of production and innovation at Oskar Blues. “The can eliminates light and oxygen, and it’s fully recyclable. The packaging is also brand new every time, which helps with the integrity of the product.” The Crowler comes in a 25.4-ounce or 32-ounce size and is compatible with any growler-filling system, but requires a special machine to seal the can, which starts around $3,600. The materials—can, lid and label—cost just under a dollar for each Crowler. “It’s a simple packaging solution that’s good for the beer,” Rudolf adds.

Retailers cite the Crowler’s ease of use as a benefit. “A lot of the growlers we sell are because people don’t want to go home and get the growler they already own,” says Couch of The Growler Guys, which has installed Crowler machines in five locations so far. “The Crowler is becoming the vessel of choice for a lot of consumers thanks to its convenience and disposability.” Schalow of Craft Beer Cellar agrees, pointing to the package’s portability for such activities as boating, picnicking and hiking as another selling point. The Port Washington, New York, unit of Craft Beer Cellar opened in August with a Crowler machine, and Schalow anticipates continuing to add the technology to new stores.

No matter the particular container, the ability to take home fresh craft beer will continue to draw in consumers and benefit producers. As The Growler Guys prepares to open three additional stores this fall, Couch sees this simple formula as the reason for the company’s success. “We’re no more than a conveyor for the breweries,” he says. “We move their beer to the consumer in the freshest, fastest way possible.”