The amount of businesses offering to fill half-gallon beer bottles known as growlers has spiked in recent months. An increased demand for the charming, if not clunky, jugs could be customer curiosity, but retailers and brewers alike think the fresh-poured beer inside will keep them coming back for more.
Growlers have long been available at a few neighborhood corner stores, restaurants and certainly Syracuse’s many brewpubs. You know they’re riding a crest of popularity now that chain gas stations are pouring growlers and Central New York grocery stores could soon join the fold. These days, beer enthusiasts face far more options.
“Consumers are looking for a draft craft product and they like the convenience of a growler,” says David Katleski, owner of Empire Brewing Company, 120 Walton St., whose beers are a common selection at area growler taps. “It also enables the retailer to offer something that doesn’t currently exist in many establishments.”
Katleski says there is room for growth and he wouldn’t be surprised if grocery stores soon started filling growlers on site. Empire beer recently became a growler option in New York City. Already at capacity in Syracuse, Empire was able to expand its brewing with a partner in Brooklyn, which enabled it to be on tap in the pharmacy chain Duane Reade and Whole Foods Market.
“A lot of breweries like Empire don’t package,” Katleski says. “So for us, this is an excellent and different avenue for getting our beer out into the marketplace.”
For many breweries and pubs, growlers provide a takeout option. Beer enthusiasts might want to take a large sample of a particular brew home to share with friends, but few others will make a trip to a pub just to buy a growler. Restaurants that do a lot of takeout orders realized that serving some fresh suds to go with their food doesn’t hurt. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que has filled their customized growlers for years, with many beers on tap for the price of a pitcher. Alto Cinco, with its strong Westcott Nation clientele and foot traffic, started pouring takeaway jugs last year.
Locavores, beer enthusiasts and casual consumers looking for something new can refill a growler for $8 to $17, depending on the variety of beer. The price of an empty growler ranges between $3 and $5, and is yours to keep and maintain. A standard half-gallon growler holds 64 ounces, or four pints. For those more accustomed to buying a six-pack, a growler is only 8 ounces shy.
In January, Sunoco expanded its Craft Beer Exchange program to the chain’s APlus convenience stores in Syracuse. Now customers can build their own six-packs or fill a growler with beers from up to 12 small-scale breweries like Flying Bison, Ithaca and Brooklyn. This week the Galeville Byrne Dairy on Old Liverpool Road installed six taps expressly for growlers, which they will rotate with seasonal brews. That location has tried to maintain the reputation of its predecessor, the Galeville Grocery.
“We are very similar to the old store in that there are hundreds of varieties of beers,” says Erin Welch, a Byrne Dairy spokeswoman. “Connoisseurs are coming to our location to see all the kinds of beer.”
Many of the beers you see on tap at local bars will never be bottled for retail sale. Brewers will test new recipes or make smaller batches of special variety beers for bars, and fans of a certain draft have only one way to bring those flavors home: growlers. Since beer consumption has drifted back to local and craft breweries in the last 18 years, growlers could be the next trend in how Americans drink their beer. In fact, let’s declare 2012 the year of the growler.
On the Growl
There is still some hesitation about the unfamiliar format, however. Doug Roth is a homebrewer who accepts the label of beer enthusiast. Empty longneck bottles and packaging from a variety of breweries are piled inside his Westcott apartment until the next recycling day. Resting on top of his kitchen cabinets are empty, dusty growlers. He’s not sold on the trend.
“I prefer a bottle or a can simply because I don’t have to drink it within 10 days or 14 days,” Roth says, commenting the average shelf life of a growler. “It’s gotten too cool and oversaturated and it’s not going to sustain because it’s not that practical.”
Despite his cynicism, a beer based on a recipe Roth brewed at home will soon be available for a growler fill at Empire. In November, Roth and co-brewers Chris Scheer and Sam Best submitted sample bottles of an oatmeal stout to a homebrewer competition held during Syracuse Beer Week. Empire brewer Tim Butler selected their concoction as the winner. The reward is helping to brew a batch at Empire and watching the beer they named Grandma Wolf’s Oatmeal Stout pour from the bar’s taps.
Beyond practicality, Roth sees another problem with growler fills. There is a technique and etiquette to properly pouring a growler, and improper maintenance can taint a beer’s flavor. “I’ve never had a bad experience with it. Maybe it’s an irrational fear,” Roth says.
Brewers share those concerns, says Katleski, who is also the president of the New York State Brewers Association. Brewers and customers both want the beer they take home to taste the way the brewer intended. The association is considering whether to create an information packet, training manual or even a certification program, for stores that pour growlers. According to Katleski, “When all these growlers are being filled up by whatever employee may be filling them up, they might not be taking the care that a brewer would like to see.”
Beer poured into a container like a regular pint picks up oxygen, which makes it go flat fast. Growlers should be poured from the “bottom up,” Katleski says. Tubing from the end of a tap allows the beer to reach the bottom of a growler without foaming, but it needs to be capped immediately. More sophisticated setups use carbon dioxide to push out oxygen.
The growler requires some care on the consumer’s end as well. While growler stations will fill any growler, there’s no guarantee they will swap out one of their clean jugs for a used growler from the competition. It is important to wash and rinse a growler soon after you empty it to remove any sediment, and equally important to let it air dry, Katleski says. That means resting it, upside down, so air can get inside the opening, not the easiest task in a standard dish rack. Ceramic growler stands are available online. Even if the growlers are clean, they are not sterile, even though that is not a requirement for a refill (still, we would recommend it). If customers have any doubt, they can ask to swap out a growler when they return for a refill.
Joe McGinn, a Sunoco spokesman, worked with craft brewers when they first tested the Syracuse market for growler pours last summer. An outside contractor rotates kegs and cleans the lines. Staff members in charge of the taps took a class on the different types of beers and keep up with seasonal varieties, McGinn says. “Some employees visited local breweries to learn how to pour a growler,” McGinn notes.
The response to the pilot program in Buffalo was good enough to add taps to APlus stores in other big markets, Rochester, Albany and Onondaga County. The Craft Beer Exchange program rotates a stock of beer from small or independent breweries and maintains a blog with the beers available at each location.
New York craft beers made their way into the hands of U.S. senators, thanks to a Super Bowl bet between Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). Since the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots, Shaheen had to buy combo six-packs for her co-workers. The six breweries represented were Blue Point, Brooklyn, Brown, Captain Lawrence, Ithaca and Saranac Matt Brewing Company.
In December, Schumer launched an “I Love NY Brew” campaign to encourage bars, restaurants and retailers to better represent beers made by the state’s 77 small-scale brewers. Many of those breweries are making all the beer their facility can hold or have recently expanded their production. There are plans for new breweries in every region of the state.
The increase in taps that fill growlers is another indicator of craft beer’s continued growth. Unable to compete on the scale of national brands like Budweiser and Coors, craft beers have found a way to increase their market share outside the usual venues like convenience stores. Marc Schulz of Ithaca Beer Company says shelf space in convenience stores is more competitive and usually more expensive than grocery stores. Growlers give them a different way in.
“This is very interesting to us in the craft community,” Schulz notes. “This is convenience stores reacting to craft brewers.”
While national beer sales are stagnating, craft sales were up nearly 15 percent midway through 2011, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group for craft brewers. There is a mutual benefit in this relationship: The chains can tap into that growth and gain some credibility by selling local beers while brewers can introduce their beers to a new audience.
Not everyone is necessarily excited to see taps in new places. For brewers content to use growlers as their sole method of distribution, this means competition. Brewer John Urlaub estimates he began selling growlers at his Rochester-based Rohrbach Brewing Company more than 10 years ago. Back then, interest in microbreweries and brewpubs was nascent and growlers enabled enthusiasts to enjoy his beer at home. The response to growlers has grown and Rohrbach now sells pre-filled growlers at local corner stores and Wegmans for a $2 deposit.
Rohrbach sells five standard varieties of beer and one seasonal brew. Unlike bottled or canned beer, growlers are delivered and stored at cold temperatures, Urlaub says. Pre-filled growlers are sealed at the brewery and can last up to six months, but for a brewer to maintain a stock of beers with limited shelf life requires consumer demand.
“Really, when I think back on it I didn’t think that growlers would be the right fit at a package store, but the unique thing is that it’s real draft,” Urlaub says. “There is nothing else in a smaller bottle that has not been altered in some way to make it shelf-stable. The growler, or the growler filling station or draft beer, is as pure as you can have it.” For growler fans, fresh taste trumps all else.
To be clear, Urlaub does not think bottling and canning compromise beers, just that those processes can create hurdles to maintain the flavor of draft beer. After all, he may want to enter that market one day, too. And growlers have another selling point: Like other business models with an emphasis on local production and reusing its packaging, they further sustainability.
“When you talk about sustainable products or whatever, those growlers come back,” Urlaub says. “We just clean and reuse them.”
Here’s a partial list of Syracuse-area stores and pubs where you can find a growler or two:
Brilbeck’s Corner Market
200 Avery Ave.; 426-1879
Stafford Convenience Store
372 Stafford Ave.; 443-0124
412 Old Liverpool Road, Liverpool; 451-3706
2646 Erie Blvd. E.; 446-8281
Sunoco APlus—six locations in Onondaga County; check what’s on tap here: craftbeer
Pubs and Restaurants
246 W. Willow St.; 476-4937
526 Westcott St.; 422-6399
253 E. Water St.; 399-5533
Empire Brewing Company
120 Walton St.; 475-2337
Middle Ages Brewing Company
120 Wilkinson St.; 476-4250
Syracuse Suds Factory
320 S. Clinton St.; 471-2253