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