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Growlers roaring as a new old way to buy beer

Ed McAleer likes to drink his brown ale and IPA straight from a beer tap, and he does not need to be in a pub to do it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ed McAleer likes to drink his brown ale and IPA straight from a beer tap, and he does not need to be in a pub to do it.

When he has a hankering for a draft beer at home, McAleer pours himself a cold one from a growler, a refillable 64-ounce glass jug that he buys from Federal Jack's, a brewpub and restaurant in his hometown of Kennebunkport, Maine. If he is having friends over, he will sometimes pick up two or three growlers filled with different types of beer so his guests can sample a variety.

Around the country, hundreds of brewpubs, breweries and even grocery stores are cashing in on the growing popularity of growlers, a term that dates back more than a century, when people carried fresh beer around in buckets.

"I like the ability to get a draft taste instead of a bottled beer. To me it's a fresher taste," said McAleer, 61, who is retired. "I also can't get some of the beers in bottles. And the price is good."

Most everybody knows beer comes in bottles, cans or kegs. Mention the word "growler" and you might get a blank stare.

But the containers, which look something like moonshine jugs, are catching on, said Julia Herz of the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado. Generally speaking, people buy growlers at brewpubs, where they are filled with beer and capped. After they're brought home, the beer will stay good for two to five days once opened.

Some consumers like growlers because they are good for the environment: reusable, so they do not contribute to the waste stream. They also are good for sharing with friends, and the beer is less expensive than when it is bought in pints at pubs, Herz said. In addition, they are nostalgic: the pails people used in times long past to haul beer from a pub to home or to work became known as growlers because of the growling sound they emitted as the beer sloshed about or perhaps from the growling of a worker's hungry stomach just before he enjoyed a beer with his lunch.

But it is the taste that keeps people coming back, Herz said on a recent day when she had in her refrigerator at home a growler filled with 400-Pound Monkey, an English-style IPA made by Left Hand Brewing Co. in Longmont, Colorado.

"What's nice about the growler is you pour it into the glass, and that's the proper way to enjoy all that a beer has to offer for flavor and aroma," Herz said.

Growler sales in Maine have taken off since a new law went into effect two years ago that allows pubs that make their own beer to sell growlers from behind the bar. Previously, brewpubs had to have a separate brewery store with a separate entrance to sell them.

Federal Jack's has sold growlers for a number of years, because it has a separate store. But since the law went into effect, the owner — who also owns Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland — has started selling them at his four other brewpubs as well, in Eliot, South Portland, Bangor and Topsham, where sales have been brisk.

Gritty McDuff's, a Portland-based beer company with three brewpubs, began selling growlers in May. In the first six months, the brewpubs filled about 1,350 growlers. Customers can buy their first beer-filled growler for $15.99 and get refills for $11.99.

"It's popular both with tourists and our regular customers," said Thomas Wilson, Gritty McDuff's marketing director.

In Pittsburgh, Scott Smith started the East End Brewing Co. seven years ago, making small-batch beers that he sold in kegs to bars and restaurants. Nowadays, growler sales make up about half of his sales, with customers showing up at his brewery — he does not have a brewpub — at limited hours five days a week to get jugs full of his Big Hop IPA, Fat Gary Nut Brown Ale and other varieties so they can drink his beer at home without having to buy a keg.

A couple of years ago, Smith was buying growlers in batches of 2,000 and they would last for about three months. He now buys 4,000 at a time, which last about two months.

"With growlers, you're getting the freshest beer you can get short of putting your head under the tank at the brewery," Smith said. "You're getting the freshest beer we can manage to get to you without giving you the keys to the place for you to come in and drink at will."

Customers also like the prices, Smith said. His growler bottles sell for $3 apiece and refills cost $10 to $15 each, so people can enjoy a pint of high-quality draft beer for about $4, he said.

Whole Foods Markets first got into the growler act five years ago when it began selling them at its Bowery Store in Manhattan, said John David Harmon, the specialty coordinator for Whole Foods' South region. The nationwide chain now has growler stations at about three dozen stores where customers can buy to-go draft beer.

Harmon likes to buy a growler now and again for himself, with Mugshot IPA from Jailhouse Brewing in Hampton, Georgia, being his latest fill. Customers like that the jugs seem retro in one sense because they date back in time, and progressive in another sense.

"It seems like a modern, new thing to do," he said. "But really it's old-fashioned."

Herz, with the Brewers Association, expects growler sales to continue growing as new technology develops that will give growlers a better seal to keep the beer fresh for a longer time.

"It's a big part of the brewpub movement," she said.