The growler—a pail or jug traditionally used to bring beer home from the bar—vanished early in the last century with the advent of convenient and affordable packaging.
But, decades later, growlers reappeared with the rise of small craft breweries. The modern growler is traced to Otto Brothers Brewing Company in Wyoming, who turned to half-gallon cider jugs in 1989 to cater to customers who wanted to take their beer home.
In this new incarnation, the growler offered small companies an alternative to installing an expensive bottling line. Enthusiasts could carry out beer from the brewery or brewpub. In time, these containers entered the distribution network, appearing in retail coolers and extending access to local breweries’ products.
Retailers soon recognized the potential of draft beer “to go.” Early in this decade, dedicated growler shops began to appear, where a customer could buy an empty container and choose from a menu of fresh beers to ll it. The growler was reusable (the best form of recycling), assuring return customer visits. The beer lover had access to hard-to-get, draft-only brews, seasonals and regional rarities.
Of course, there were challenges, most in the form of evolving state laws. Some states only allowed breweries, not retailers, to offer growlers. Others required that breweries ll only their branded growlers, diminishing the attractive re-use option and leaving some hapless consumers with loads of logoed empties, never to be filled again. Some states permitted growler filling by off-premise businesses, but required a separate license. Sampling is allowed in many states to promote sales; on-premise consumption is allowed in others, combining the functions of growler station and beer bar.
Despite this patchwork of regulations, the growler station concept took off. Now, some years into the phenomenon, the trend may have peaked. But that means that retailers are looking for ways to incorporate a growler station into a business model with wider appeal, while still giving beer fans the choice and portability they seek.
New Laws, New Technology
In 2012, John O’Connell and his partners opened the first Growler Station, a stand-alone store in New York that filled glass growlers using a Russian-made counter-pressure system. The Pegas system, with its eye-catching, space age design, promises a shelf-stable beer packaged under conditions that resemble a bottling line, with the bonus of preventing waste.
After opening a second store, the The Growler Station began marketing the Pegas system as part of a turn-key solution for dedicated growler stores, as well as for smaller filling kiosks housed in beverage retail and grocery stores.
O’Connell reports that, although growth slowed in 2017, the business is maintaining. “We currently have just over 400 locations in the U.S. and Canada, compared to a couple of hundred a few years ago.”
Future growth at the old pace, however, hinges on changes in the laws as states become more “growler friendly.” About 34 states currently allow growler sales by off-premise companies. “Most recently for us was Michigan, and we’re putting in a Growler Station one to two a month right now,” he says. “The states that aren’t in yet include big states—California and Texas. If the law changed, we would be busy just in California for the next couple of years. That’s how big that would be for us.”
The company has made one important addition to its line: the “crowler seamer.” O’Connell explains, “This is a canning operation. The crowler refers to a 32-ounce can first marketed by Oskar Blues. You ll a can with beer, then you put the top on and you use a seamer, similar to a soup seamer used in manufacturing.”
The crowler seems to capture sales that the growler misses: “We’re finding that at the locations that add crowlers, it doesn’t necessarily impact the sales of growlers, but what it does is increase overall beer sales for those customers.”
While calling the glass growler the “better vessel,” O’Connell notes that the crowler has the advantage that it excludes light, which damages beer. “And you don’t have the cost of investing $3.99 or $4.99 in a growler to reuse. The cost of the crowler is built into the price.” For the customer, however, the throw-away crowler may reduce the incentive for return visits.
At Easybar, an Oregon-based company that sells dispensing systems for every kind of beverage alcohol, growler systems have been a supplement to their draft beer systems for the past seven years.
“We provide a self-contained growler system for between eight and 12 brands,” explains James Nicol, Easybar’s CEO. “It’s used in a lot of local stores, convenience stores, restaurants—basically any place that includes a draft system. It’s a self-contained roll-around unit that allows the purveyor to have a rinser, a refrigerated unit and all the beer tower implementation that’s attached to it, right there in one piece.”
Although Easybar’s growler system sales have also leveled off, Nicol’s not tempted by the crowler, especially given the company’s diversi ed product line. “I think there’s definitely a niche market there, but we’re geared more towards draft beer dispensed at larger venues, and it’s just not within our business model,” he says. “The crowler is more of a specialized unit.”
Shortly after Delaware state law changed to allow growler sales by off-premise retailers, The Delaware Growler opened in Newark. With 50 lines, the store instantly became the largest growler-filling station in the area, according to owner/operator Mike Slattery.
He acknowledges that growler sales in general have fallen off somewhat recently, but explains, “It is the new growler business that has fallen off for me, for the simple fact that most people getting fills have their own growlers.”
Slattery keeps customers engaged by offering a changing selection of growlers, including Mason jars. “It keeps it fresh,” he says. “Everyone who knows what a growler is likely has one. I try to not just have the plain Jane, glass 32- or 64-ounce growlers. We try to have a couple unique ones.”
With a location in the heart of the University of Delaware campus, he says, “Someone turns 21 every day, and it’s fun to introduce them to craft beers and growlers. It’s constant education for me, and I know this demographic is different from a lot of other retailers.”
He added a crowler seamer as well, but first put it through its paces. “I’ve tested the cans up to two months. I filled eight of them, and every week I tried one and the beer held up,” he says. “There’s no air and light. I would think it would hold up longer, but obviously the brewers are going to say to drink their beer when it’s freshest.”
Slattery keeps an active presence on social media—Facebook, Snapchat and Untappd—to inform customers of new beer selections. And the Delaware Growler, despite its name, is a full-service liquor store. “The more reasons to get people in the store, the better,” he says.
Matthew Dubar, the beer manager at Sodie’s Wine & Spirits in Fort Smith, Arkansas, has also seen a little leveling off in growler activity, but he’s con dent that a cutting-edge beer selection will keep customers returning.
When it comes to unusual beers, growlers are customers’ only option for taking beer off-site. “We recently tapped a beer from Mother’s Brewing out of Spring eld, Sunshine Chugsuckle, which is a New England-style juicy IPA,” he says. “Sometimes beers will sit on the growler station for a week or two weeks, but that particular one, I sold two kegs in a day.” Founder’s Canadian Breakfast Stout (rarely, if ever, released to the general public) triggered a similar rush.
He’s also noticed customer interest in novel growler styles, although Sodie’s only stocks the traditional glass growler. “What I’m seeing now are the metal growlers, and some are very artsy looking—like steampunk-style metal growlers owners can pressurize themselves,” he explains. “Unfortunately, some of these have a wider mouth than we can t in our Pegas system, so we have to pretty much ll a glass growler and pour it into the metal growler, but they have a way of pressurizing it with CO2, so they don’t have to worry about it going at.” To remain welcoming to all styles of growler, the store has a state-of the-art washer.
New Beverage and Services
The Growler Guys in Oregon were among the first on the beer-friendly West Coast to open a dedicated growler store. In 2012, founding partner Kizer Couch opened a growler-filling station in one half of a family-owned gas station.
“We had so many people requesting that we help them open their own store that we turned it into the franchise after the first year and that’s when we decided to do on-premise consumption,” Couch says. “We grew faster than was healthy in the first two years. We only opened one store in 2015, to get our feet under us and get the franchise down.”
Today, there are 14 stores in the Pacific Northwest, plus Wisconsin and Nevada. Each one is easily identified as a Growler Guys by the digital menus and unique digital tap handles—3D photos of each tap handle that can be shared by all the franchisees, and that relieve staff of the hassle of changing handles as beers sell out.
Mindful of new opportunities, the Growler Guys have added crowler sales to their mix. Couch acknowledges there are barriers to entry, chiefly the requirement to buy the empties in bulk. But for a franchisor with multiple locations, it’s been a good decision. “It took off like wild re. The majority of the beverage going out of our location is going out in crowlers—even more than growlers,” he explains. “We don’t charge anything for the cans. If they buy 32 ounces of any type of beer or other beverage, we can put it in a crowler, seal it up, and they can take it away.”
But the most consequential offering to customers may be the expanded menu of beverages for the growler fillers. “At the same time the craft beer scene started to slow down, craft cider and other products like craft mead, kombucha and specialty soft drinks started to pick up,” Couch says.
And Couch has an another option that may not be open to all: CBD drinks. CBD, or cannabidiol, is the nonintoxicating (that is, non-THC) component in marijuana, believed to have medical bene ts. New entrepreneurs are incorporating CBD into fruit-infused water—with the appropriate disclaimers about medical benefits not being proven.
That doesn’t dampen enthusiasm. “It’s the number-one product we had on tap in the last year,” Couch says. “It’s an amazing product, and it appeals to all walks of life. We’ve got doctors, nurses who come in and get it, Millennials.” At every Growler Guys franchise where it is offered, CBD water has become the top seller.
Couch sums up the ways retailers can take the growler concept forward in a time of change: “At most of our locations, we’ve captured the demographic that wants craft beer to take home. We have those people, so if we want to grow and expand, we need to add to the things we offer, nd some other avenues for growth. We’ve captured that niche of the market, and now we have to find new areas.”
Julie Johnson was for many years the co-owner and editor of All About Beer Magazine. She has been writing about craft beer for over twenty years. She lives in North Carolina, where she was instrumental in the Pop the Cap campaign that modernized the state’s beer laws.