The Growler Fad Will Fade

Bill Night’s Piss & Vinegar: The Growler Fad Will Fade

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Now that the season of year-end beer predictions is over, I’d like to offer a belated prediction for the year 2016. This is the year you will begin to see fewer growler-fill options.

The first to go will be the silly growler setups that grocery stores began adding a couple of years ago. Growler fills don’t fit the grocery store model of fast, cheap self-service. The stations are never staffed, which means that a customer first has to track down an employee to fill their container. There is usually a further wait as the employee wraps up whatever else is their real job, and possibly tracks down a key to the locked taps. Then consider the activity of pouring the beer. That in itself isn’t as simple as filling a jug of water — there’s an art to getting a growler neatly filled without an excess of foam.

an empty growler fill bar at a local Fed Meyers Grocery Store

an empty growler fill bar at the Hawthorne Fed Meyer store

I suspect it is that set of hoops to jump through that contributes to the low usage of grocery growler stations–now that I think of it, I can’t remember ever seeing anyone get a growler filled at a grocery store. Which brings me to a second reason to think this fad will soon begin to die out in supermarkets: the product doesn’t turn over very quickly. That’s bad for customers, since presumably you are buying draft beer so that you’ll have something very fresh. It’s bad for the store, because they’ve dedicated a lot of valuable space to a low-volume product, where each unit of inventory — a keg — is pretty expensive. I also doubt that grocery stores are paying much thought to related quality issues like keeping tap lines clean. All of that defeats the purpose of buying fresh beer.

The other factor that will start to weigh on growler mania is price. Have you heard of the Six-Pack Equivalent? It’s the idea that a convenient way to think about beer prices is to convert the amount of beer you are buying to 72 ounces, so you can see what it costs in comparison to a six-pack. (There’s a calculator on the page linked to above, but there are also inexpensive apps for Apple and Android.) That comparison is especially valid for growlers — it’s a similar quantity of beer to a six-pack, and serves the same purpose of taking beer home.

When you start to think in six-pack equivalents, growlers start to look expensive. It seems like $12 is the typical grocery-store price for a fill: that’s a $13.50 six-pack. It’s not unusual to see a $15 price–that’s a $16.88 six-pack. Now, maybe the beer on tap is something that isn’t offered in bottles, in which case you’ll have to decide if the rarity makes it worth the hefty price tag–maybe ask yourself if you can find a $9 six-pack of something similar. But all too often I see that $12 price on a beer which is also available in the same store in six-packs, which is just nuts.

Don’t get me wrong–there is a time and place for filling up that growler. I think the dedicated growler-fill shops that have been springing up might be a sustainable business if they offer a unique enough selection–and a fresh and cheap enough selection. A ten-dollar fill might not be too painful, but I’m not sure this town is big enough for 5 growler stores with prices in the $12-15 range, especially if there is a tip jar sitting on the counter (raising the $13.50 six-pack to $14.63 if you throw in a buck). Also, I can understand the temptation to take home a draft-only offering from a brewpub or brewery tasting room, if it’s a special enough beer or occasion. Keep your eyes open for specials–some breweries have really reasonable weekly specials, or buy-one-get-one-free days.

But overall, I feel like the growler trend is going to begin fading this year as beer lovers start to understand the pros and cons. And I predict that 2016 will be the year that grocery stores start to back away from the growler business, which doesn’t really fit their business model anyway.


BILL NIGHT

BillNight

For the last several years Bill Night has been writing a Portland-centric beer blog called It’s Pub Night, named after the ritual weekly phone call or email rounding up friends for a night out: “Hey, it’s pub night!” Despite his advanced age, he is lending a hand to the New School with a monthly rant called “Piss and Vinegar.” The name of the column comes from the British colloquial phrase “taking the piss”—making fun—and the sour character of Bill’s rants. He will continue to maintain It’s Pub Night, and he invites you to take a look at some of the fun things over there, like the Beer Review Generator, the Portland Beer Price Index, and the Six-Pack Equivalent Calculator.

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

Discussion

  • brett thomas
    brett thomas
    Tue Feb 16, 2016 2:04 PM

    There are many assumptions in that article. How do we know what the cleaning schedule is for Fred Meyers taplines? They could be more regimented than some bars.

    The issue on price is a valid one, however what about the issue of beer freshness? Nearly everything sitting on a grocery store shelf is beyond what I would consider fresh. Look at packaging dates next time you go to a grocery store. Widmer, Kona, Sierra Nevada, Oakshire, Worthy – you’ll be lucky to find something that’s not 90 days old. Draft beer can be hit or miss too, but the chances are better that you’re getting brewery fresh beer.

    • Bill Night
      Bill Night
      Wed Feb 17, 2016 4:30 AM

      Yeah, that was kind of a strawman I set up, assuming the grocery lines won’t be cared for and the beer will be stale. Plenty of bars have those same issues. Still, I think the care and feeding required by growler stations is more than most groceries will want to deal with in the long run.

      • Chris
        Chris
        Wed Feb 17, 2016 5:20 PM

        “Look at packaging dates next time you go to a grocery store. Widmer, Kona, Sierra Nevada, Oakshire, Worthy – you’ll be lucky to find something that’s not 90 days old. Draft beer can be hit or miss too, but the chances are better that you’re getting brewery fresh beer.”

        They’re no guarantee that the keg at the growler fill station is any fresher, especially if it’s been sitting on tap for a while and they’re only selling one or two growlers per day. At best, draft beer has the advantage of constant refridgeration, but this notion that draft beer is always going to be fresher than packaged product is an urban legend. I have to refuse kegs of hoppy and/or delicate beers from our distributors on a weekly basis because they are pushing 60-80 days old.

        If you’re seeing “close to code” six packs of popular beer at a place like Freddies you can probably blame that on the distributor too. Unlike most consumer goods, grocery stores can’t get 30-90 day terms on deliveries because the OLCC requires COD on all distributor to retailer alcohol sales. This means there’s aboslutely no advantage to buying more than you need to get you through until your next delivery, and the large chains have top of the line back end software telling them exactly what that number is.

        Long story short, if you’re seeing a popular brand that “less then fresh” it’s a safe bet that the distributor over-ordered and is working through old product themselves.

      • Jeff Alworth
        Jeff Alworth
        Tue Feb 16, 2016 3:44 PM

        Hear, hear! I’ve been thinking the same thing.

        • Montanaandy
          Montanaandy
          Tue Feb 16, 2016 4:00 PM

          The idea, at least in my mind, behind purchasing a growler of beer is that you are getting a discount relative to what you would pay for the equivalent in the brewery.

          Here in Montana, pints average $3 at most Montana breweries so you would pay $12 for 4 pints (no sales tax).

          You generally pay around $8 for a growler fill at a brewery here so you arguably save $4. This price is also competitive with the price of a good 6 pack of craft beer which runs around $9-10 in stores.

          A few places charge $15-20 for “special” or “seasonal” offerings. I did go for this once and the only thing that I could think of while drinking the beer (which was very good) was how friggin expensive each sip was. Not the experience I was looking for.

          So despite my desire to try some of these beers, there is simply no way I can/will pay $15-20 for a growler of beer no matter how good it is.

          It appears that the logic behind this is to charge the higher rate that they charge for pints of these beers (generally $5 per pint) and just multiply it times 4.

          • Bill Night
            Bill Night
            Wed Feb 17, 2016 4:32 AM

            $8 fills would get my business, that’s about the right price. Wish we had more of those around here.

          • David Chamberlain
            David Chamberlain
            Tue Feb 16, 2016 8:00 PM

            I go to Market of Choice in Cedar Mill and it’s always busy (so is the one at my local New Seasons). They run through a lot of kegs. They generally only order beers that aren’t available in bottles/cans or they don’t want to use up shelf space for. And they have a large bottle room as well. Now keep in mind they have a dedicated beer station staff that often includes 2 or 3 people on shift at the same time, so the point about un-staffed Fred Meyer station is still valid. But I don’t think growlers are a fad, they have been around for literally centuries…but like with ANY business, there is some market saturation at the moment but the same is true with craft breweries. There is a place for cans, bottles, and growlers, in my opinion. Generally speaking, however, your growler user doesn’t even think of Albertsons, Fred Meyer, etc. when planning to fill their growler. Still, my local ARCO also has one (fill it yourself) and I’ve seen people using it. Is it possible that places where people go to buy beer are actually selling more beer than places where people go to buy underwear and bedsheets?

            • Jeffrey
              Jeffrey
              Tue Feb 16, 2016 8:57 PM

              Totally agree with this, especially related to price! Been saying this for a while — I simply don’t get the pricing on growlers. Why would I want to spend $12+ on a growler that has 1) less beer than a 6-pack 2) that I have to drink within ~24 hours of opening 3) that I have to carry around a clunky container to get?

              Totally agree there’s a time and place for growlers, but doesn’t make sense for me most of the time.

              • DonS
                DonS
                Tue Feb 16, 2016 10:16 PM

                Just because they can … doesn’t mean they should. They’ll figure that out sooner or later. Leave the growler (and crowler!) fills to those who know what they’re doing. I don’t go to a bar or growler-fill shop to buy cat food, either.

                • Liz
                  Liz
                  Tue Feb 16, 2016 10:19 PM

                  Any comments on the sustainability factor with growler fills? A six pack of bottles or cans, yes, can be recycled. But one reusable growler lasts much longer and creates much less waste and repurposing. Bend had a thriving growler fill community, Disposobility and ease of consumption are nice, but the growler movement creates great craft brew experiences and has less impact on the environment.

                  • Bill Night
                    Bill Night
                    Wed Feb 17, 2016 4:34 AM

                    That is a good point, and the reusability of growlers is what turns a lot of people on when they first see them. The only thing that grates a little is, why does the buyer have to shoulder the cost of the sustainability, when the brewery is the one saving money on packaging?

                  • David Chamberlain
                    David Chamberlain
                    Tue Feb 16, 2016 11:48 PM

                    I don’t understand the price argument…am I the only one here who’s ever spent $15 on a 22oz bottle? Are all beer drinkers to be lumped into the 6-pack category? And how is a growler more ‘clunky’ to carry than a 6-pack? In any case (no pun intended), if your favorite beer is readily available and affordable in a 6 pack, and you have no desire to try something that isn’t, then you’re set. For those of us that like to play the field a bit more, a growler/crowler/etc can be an inexpensive, environmentally responsible way to do so. My growler fills cost me $11. Which is $2.75/pint. That is good enough for me. If I want to save a few cents then I’ll buy the 6-pack I know and save the growler for when something better is on tap…oh, did I mention you can actually try before you buy a growler? Can’t open up a bottle in the store to taste it….something growler users know, you can get as much as half a beer for free every time you purchase! 😉

                    • Jeffrey
                      Jeffrey
                      Wed Feb 17, 2016 2:05 AM

                      David,

                      I definitely agree with some of your points (and I do buy relatively expensive 22oz bottles from time to time)

                      The answer your question on clunkiness is simple: I don’t need to tote around an empty six pack of bottles until I fill them up. With a growler, I do. Plus it’s easier for me to buy a 6-pack on a whim rather than always having my growler on hand (or in my bag since I’m often biking).

                      From what I’ve seen, a lot of the growler options at the $12ish price point in SE Portland are generally beers that I either 1) types or breweries I don’t really like or 2) can readily be found around Portland already (in bottles or on tap).

                      Beers that are rare for Portland and/or not available in bottles are likely going to be a more expensive growler if you’re shopping in SE Portland. And any beer that’s a $15 22 oz bottle is likely going to be a pretty damn expensive growler.

                      I love going out to places like Belmont Station, Horse Brass, Beermongers, etc. to enjoy a beer but don’t do it every day because of the expense. If it comes down to saving only a buck or two by filling a growler, I’d rather go to the bar and enjoy my pint there (where I’m not forced to drink 4 pints of the same thing in any case).

                      • David Chamberlain
                        David Chamberlain
                        Wed Feb 17, 2016 3:57 PM

                        Jeffrey, I understand your point, I just think there is crossover in our thinking. We don’t always want a growler, or a 6-pack, or this beer or that, and having the option and freedom to purchase our beer in a multitude of ways is not a bad thing. That’s why I disagree with the article. As for your location, well you’re spoiled for choice in SE. However, I would not buy a growler of a beer that is readily available in bottles for cheaper, obviously that would be silly. But most growler fills are going to be beers that are not readily available in bottles or cans. A lot of them are for beers straight out of a small brewpub that doesn’t have any other way to provide take home brew. The rest are going to be for hiking/camping/etc. in which case glass is a big no no. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to purchase beer in all the commercially available containers, otherwise they wouldn’t exist.

                        On another note, I understand better now your original comment about lugging the growler around. Since I live in the burbs I drive everywhere so it’s easy for me to just keep my growlers in the trunk. But there have been plenty of times when I forgot them and bought bottles instead. However, most of the time when I’m going to get a growler fill it is a premeditated thing and I take the growler with me for that purpose. I wouldn’t expect a bike commuter to ride around with a growler on board for days or weeks at a time.

                    • Mitch
                      Mitch
                      Wed Feb 17, 2016 7:15 AM

                      Are we really complaining about the spread of good beer? Growlers are simply not a fad as they have been around longer than America itself. I personally dont buy six packs because verity is the spice of life, so to parse everything down to a six pack price, while it may work for some, definitely does not work for all. While I fim0nd it a bit silly to see growler stations at Freddies, places like new seasons and whole foods its just an option. Growler stores are grest as they tend to have a more varied selection than 90% of bars snd therefore allow more exposure to new things.

                      Its ridiculous that anyone that enjoys of pint of a well made beer would bad mouth a ‘fad’ that allowed people to further enjoy a beer they just discovered or have been looking for. And sorry you think 15 bucks is too much for 3 to 4 beers of something you more than likely cant take home otherwise. But hey you got me to click through.

                      • Kyle Beer Growler J.
                        Kyle Beer Growler J.
                        Tue Sep 19, 2017 9:13 AM

                        Great post about beer growlers, my favorite beer atm is Dragon’s Milk. Hands down my favorite, especially on tap.
                        I love dark beers, and this one is so beautifully complex. Coffee notes, chocolate sweetness, and bourbon elements are the high points for me.