Let’s talk about growlers


With the recent news that changes to Ontario’s liquor laws could mean the LCBO will start to carry and fill growlers, it’s probably a good time to ask some questions about this development.

Namely, does anyone really give a shit?

The benefits and pitfalls of recent proposed changes to Ontario’s liquor laws, specifically as they relate to beer, have been debated fairly extensively as of late, and probably will be until the changes actually come into effect some time in the 3rd millennium, but not much has been made of the odd little item about growlers, and so it’s worth considering whether or not the potential “mainstreaming” of those fun little jugs is a good thing.

But before we get there, let’s cover some basics for the uninitiated.

First, what the heck is a growler? In short, it’s a large, refillable bottle of beer.

Specifically, it’s a 1.89 litre glass (or ceramic, or metal) container, usually with a loop on its short neck that acts as a handle. In regions where craft beer is popular, many brewpubs, retail stores, and bars offer “growler fills” where you can simply bring in your own bottle and leave with some “draught” beer for home consumption. There are some subtleties here in terms of how they’re filled–some places do it right from the tap (not as great) and some have sophisticated growler fillers that mean the life of your unopened growler will be a little longer (better)–but in a nutshell, that’s the deal.

The reason they’re called “growlers” seems mostly lost to history. One story purports that growler was once a term for metal pails you could use to take home beer from your local tavern and they acquired their name because of the sound the lid made as carbon dioxide escaped.

Another theory suggests that “growler” comes from portions of beer offered to factory workers (in great factories, clearly)  in order to calm their stomachs before they started to “growl;” and yet another theory posits that “growler” is a term held over from a time when children would deliver pails of beer to workers on their lunch break, in a practice that was, for some reason, called “rushing the growler,” and one that clearly should still be going on today. Where are my lunch-break, beer-fetching children?

Regardless of their origins, as with most things related to beer in this province, opinions about the merits of growlers are varied.

On the plus side, growlers offer craft brewers a unique way to offer up small batch beers to patrons who might not otherwise get a chance to take certain beer styles home. “We brew a lot of beers at the brew pub that can’t be run through our production bottling line due to the wild yeast or bacteria in them so we usually put them in growlers,” Iain MacOustra, Brewery Operations at Amsterdam Brewery tells me via email. “Farmhouse ales, Brett pale ales and Barrel-aged beers are a few that you can occasionally find [in growlers] in our retail store. I like the convenience of it: grab a growler on your way home and guarantee its freshness. You avoid the LCBO and Beer Store and pick up beer straight from the brewery. I dig that part of it, that connection, knowing where your beer came from and knowing that it’s as fresh as possible.”

Michael Duggan, founder of Duggan’s Brewery, concurs that growlers offer something special to people who appreciate unique beer. “Growlers are a great way for us to get our smaller brands out there,” he says, “because sometimes we only do one batch, and there isn’t enough time to get bottles and cans together for off-sale.”

But using growlers is not without its downside. Mandie Murphy, cofounder of Left Field Brewery, says that for their company, the cons outweigh the pros. “Because they are so big and the shelf life is so short, there’s a higher likelihood that a customer will have a bad experience with one of our beers if it’s in a growler,” she says.

A growler pretty much has to be consumed within a few days of being filled and, once opened, shouldn’t be resealed, and so the chances that consumers will have a negative beer-drinking experience outweigh the benefits of a growler program for some brewers.

Victoria Rombis, a retail associate at Amsterdam who often handles growler sales, says there’s an added issue that comes with only being allowed to fill certain growlers at certain places. “Many breweries do not take outside growlers because they don’t want their beer to be consumed under another label and vice versa,” she says. “Imagine finding a shard of glass or something in a growler that has your name on it but was filled improperly at another brewery. It could get really messy. Also it’s a quality control thing, if you bring me a growler with a crappy lid that doesn’t seal nicely, I’m not going to want to put my product in it just to be ruined a few hours later.”

Regardless of how you feel personally about growlers, seemingly everyone agrees that the things need to be consumed fresh. This, of course, leads to some obvious questions about how they might get introduced at the LCBO. Are brewers simply going to ship growlers to the LCBO? This seems like bad idea. Even if they are filled and sealed properly, this seems rife with opportunity for people to pick one up, open it once, let it sit in the fridge too long, try it again and then write off craft beer entirely when the second serving doesn’t taste as good (however implausible this scenario might seem to you, please realize that most people are quite dumb). And even assuming that people understand that growlers need to be consumed in one sitting, let’s consider for a minute how much shelf space the damn things are going to take up. Craft brewers have a hard enough time getting space for their tall boys, now they’re going to be competing with over-sized jugs?

This seems potentially terrible.

I was in an LCBO recently where the manager told me he had just bumped Great Lakes Brewery’s Canuck because he only has so many beer SKUs and all five (five!) formats of Budweiser they offer sell better than most craft beer. We really don’t need big ol’ jugs taking up prime real estate.

The other option of course is the rumoured growler fill stations they could have at certain LCBOs like the Summerhill one. To me, the idea of allowing the general public to bring in their own containers and have them filled at the LCBO is wrought with so many potential issues, not the least of which is the actual installation of draught, that it seems highly unlikely that a provincially-run liquor store will actually have all the details ironed out in this writer’s lifetime; in which case, I guess there’s no sense debating it.

All that being said, people who use growlers are passionate about them. The fact that they’re often filled and sold the same day means they’re a great way to take home fresh beer, which is inarguably awesome, but to me the downsides of them being available on a large scale in the province seem to outweigh the positives.

What do you think? Is the growler about to make it big in Ontario, or not so much?

12 thoughts on “Let’s talk about growlers

  1. My biggest issue with people bringing their own growlers into a brewery to be filled would be CLEANLINESS.

    I wouldn’t want to fill mine up with the same tap as some nasty dude (or dudette) that didn’t clean their growler out properly after the last fill and has a vibrant mold family hiding in the bottom.

    1. I’ve been to a couple gas stations in the states where they do this actually. They usually swap the growler you bring back with a new one, nad have the staff fill it for you. If they imported this model, it might work out.

  2. We have growlers in Manitoba at the breweries and some beer vendors and liquor marts. They seem to be doing well and it has increased the variety of local craft and ultra small batch available. Half Pints has a test batch Tuesday growler fill only that can be quite fun and yes I keep a growler in the trunk of my car just in case I see a tweet about something new to try on the way home.

  3. Since I left Ontario in April of 2014 for Vancouver, my craft beer experience has been enhanced by the open growler policy we have here. I have a collection of growlers that I keep clean. I leave some at home, others at my desk and maybe one in the car. That way, when fresh new craft beer comes out from a favourite brewery I can quickly go and snap some up. One brewery here in Vancouver actually celebrates weird growlers on its Instagram. I’ve had no issues with bad beer – if anything, I’ve been exposed to more beers than I would have otherwise been able to try. And filling a growler here is only $10-$13. No crazy deposit like at Amsterdam Brewery.

  4. I don’t mind giving growler deposits. Amsterdam’s is the highest by far, but to be honest, it’s a small note (and really, if you ever decide to stop using the growler system, you get a decent cash in hand back)

    Usually my biggest problem is drinking it all before it goes bad!

    1. Yes I kept a growler of Amsterdam Raspberry Wheat for too long and it tasted more like cream cheese.
      There IS something gratifying about glugging back Amsterdam RW from a growler after a good bike ride.

  5. Seriously, Ben? You actually think the LCBO would institute a growler program that is not strictly regulated? My bet would be on evac growler fill stations, LCBO-mandated growlers and a swap-out system.

    1. I think it would be regulated like crazy. There’s no way they would implement such a program until they had regulated literally every aspect of it. That’s why I think it will take forever.
      Then there will be the consideration of whose draught to carry. How are they going to decide which beer they’re pouring each day? Will there be Bud and Corona growler fills since those are the best selling beers at the LCBO? Will managers choose brewers they favour, as they often do now for shelf space and end caps?
      Clearly it could be good, but also clear is the fact it won’t be.

  6. Growler Bars in their private liquor stores are starting the get very popular in Alberta. Chains such as Liquor Depot and destination craft beer stores such as Sherbrooke Liquor in Edmonton (over 1,200 different craft beers in their walk-in cooler) have evac growler refill stations in their stores. Liquor Depot is rolling them out in their larger destination stores. Half the fun of growler bars are the tastings of marquee beers from breweries such as Rogue, Deschutes and Stone. How Liquor Depot for instance does it is they only allow growler (and 1L howler) refills of their own branded jugs. They rinse and clean your jug and they sell them for $5 each, but also have frequent giveaways. You can also taste while they are refilling your jug. Work well, they are very popular, and people appreciate the rotating taps so they can try something new every time they walk in. Plus, you can have beers that are rare in bottled form without having to do to a bar.

  7. Big thing will be selection at the LCBO. For example, I could see them having beers like Black Oak Pale Ale. I like that beer but it’s already at the LCBO in other formats and at the beer store in 6 packs. I’m only really interested in smaller breweries and one offs for growlers but I don’t know how they’d get through the LCBO testing process. For example, I tried 5 Paddles Italian Backyard (a pale ale with basil). If the LCBO was going to offer to take 14 kegs of that beer to sell at 8 stores, that’ll be gone in a week much less time than the actual testing process and likely generating less revenue than the admin fees for getting it into the system. Let you said, I think they’re going to mess it up and then spin it that people aren’t really into craft beer.

  8. I’d agree that the only way this would work is by installing a growler station, which I doubt the LCBO would be willing to install and properly maintain. Even if they did, the reason people get growlers, as has been mentioned above, is to have brewery-fresh beer or to bring home stuff that’s hard to get packaged. At just about any retail market, the beer won’t be as fresh as at the production level, whether the growler or the keg is shipped in. And as for the specialty stuff, I can’t see the LCBO successfully getting those rare kegs before the superstar on-premise accounts.

    Just like @Al said above me, this just means that we’ll have yet another way to bring home shitty American Bitters/Canadian Pale Ales (and we know how much you love those, Ben)

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