EDIT 4/2/2013: THIS POST WAS WRITTEN BACK IN FEBRUARY 2012 AND WAS BASED ON OUR TRAVELS AND EXPERIENCES FILLING OUR COLLECTION OF GROWLERS. WHILE IT IS ACCURATE IN THAT IT IS BASED ON OUR EFFORTS AT THAT TIME, THERE HAVE BEEN CHANGES IN LAWS SINCE THEN. SOMEONE SHOULD PRODUCE AN ARTICLE SHOWING CURRENT STATE LAWS GOVERNING GROWLERS. MAYBE I WILL TAKE A SHOT AT THIS.
Where to start on this one? Well, I suppose I should start at the beginning. First, this is my first participation in the Session. I have been blogging for about a year and writing about beer for about six months. Second, my family and I are taking a year to travel around the US in an RV and are a little over half way done. We have been writing about our travels at www.afamilyfarafield.com and part of the trip/blog involves visiting breweries, writing about them and, when possible, filling a stainless steel growler. Third, this has given me not only exposure to some good, great and mediocre beers, it has also given me a glimpse into some of the various state laws that govern beer-making and growler usage. While I have to admit I am something of a newbie when it comes to blogging, I can say this with confidence: I know growlers!
First, let me discuss my (ever-growing) collection of growlers: My first growler was, until recently, my favorite. It is a 2-liter brown glass Muster Geschutzt growler with a pewter handle, ceramic lid and rubber gasket. I purchased this from Deschutes Brewery about 10 years ago and it has served me well since then. The lid seals tight and is much better than the typical screw-on cap when it comes to keeping beer carbonated and fresh.
My new favorite growler is a half-gallon, stainless steel, vacuum insulated jug made by Hydroflask. I got my hands on this baby in Montana and have been filling it whenever I can since then. I like this better than the Deschutes growler as it is not glass (i.e. breakable), and the vacuum insulation keeps liquids cold for a full day. My only complaints with it lie in the lid: while it seals tight and holds carbonation, it is too small to get a hand inside for cleaning, yet too big to fit shrink-wrap plastic collars required by some breweries (more on this below). But these are minor complaints. And I have often wondered if stainless steel affects beer flavor over time, but no beer has been in the growler long enough to find out.
So far, I have picked up four additional growlers since Massachusetts, all standard brown jugs with silk-screened logos on them. I gave a Pioneer Brewing growler to a friend as a gift (filled, of course, then promptly drained), but kept two from Pisgah and Wedge breweries in Asheville, North Carolina. North Carolina only allows the sale of containers provided by the selling breweries, so I had no choice but to buy new ones (again, more on this later). Some people collect t-shirts, spoons, thimbles, or Christmas ornaments when they visit new places, I guess I am collecting growlers.
My most recent addition is a one-gallon brown jug, purchased from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida. For some reason, Florida only permits growlers of one quart and one gallon. Despite lobbying by state brewers, current law does not permit filling of the half-gallon growlers so common in the rest of the country. Since they would not fill any of my other jugs, I was forced to buy a one-gallon jug. Oh, how I suffer for my art!
After passage of the 21st Amendment, this left the regulation of alcohol production, sale and distribution to the states, and every one has their own spin on how to do things. I live in Oregon, which has very loose laws governing filling outside containers with beer. I have seen someone get a single beer to go a mason jar, and have heard a bartender say that he will fill an empty 2-liter soda bottle if it is clean. But I have found that as I have travelled around the country and visited 26 states to date, this attitude (and legal framework) is the exception rather than the rule. I have visited states that do not permit growlers of any kind (Georgia, South Dakota). I have discovered some states only permit growlers filled by the selling brewery, in state-approved containers (Massachusetts, North Carolina, Minnesota). The upside to these laws, though, is that many breweries sell growlers that are pre-filled, pressurized and sealed, giving a longer shelf life. And now I find myself in Florida, with the strangest laws of all (quart and gallon growlers only).
In those states that do allow growler fills, I have seen bartender perform some gymnastics to get around various provisions of existing laws. In Illinois, a brewer was required to put a company sticker on my Hydroflask in order to comply, and they had non-stick vinyl Colorforms-like labels handy for just such an occasion. I have seen other brewers use normal stickers with only the corners of exposed, making removal very easy. Other states (Wisconsin, Florida) require that jugs be sealed after filling, most often with plastic heat-shrink collars placed on the bottle necks. Since my Hydroflask has an oversized neck, bartenders have used have electrical tape, saran wrap and a heat gun, and stickers to comply. A few bartenders have told me that a growler without a seal could be considered an open container, but most sent me down the road indicating it was my problem if I got pulled over.
I have heard a few theories on why laws are so restrictive, and most come down to money. While the laws seem to be more restrictive in the temperant South, discussions with brewers and bartenders seem to indicate that the big production breweries are behind efforts to maintain their market share. While blue laws and dry counties can still be found, it sounds like restrictive laws are just a case of the Big Boys protecting their bottom line.
The cost for the growler itself can range from very relatively cheap to expensive, depending on how exotic it is. A simple brown jug with a brewery label or logo typically sells for $2 to $4, and some breweries such as Rogue often sell filled growlers in grocery stores. My gallon jug cost $7 at Cigar City, while I noticed that they were selling the quart bottles for $4. The fancy growlers, such as my Deschutes jug, can be pricey: while I seem to recall paying about $20 for mine, the website indicates this has gone up to $30. And the Hydroflask retails for roughly $40 to $50.
In Bend, I can get a growler filled for as low as $6, and as much as $15. On this trip, prices have ranged from $8 to $15 (before tax) with most in the $10 to $12 range. I have been spending $17 to $20 to fill my growler in Florida, but again, that is for a full gallon. This is one of the tougher parts of growler fills: If I can get a six-pack for $8 to $10, why should I get 64 oz. (a little over five 12 oz. bottles) for more money? I will pay a little more for fresh draft beer, but not a lot more.
Why Fill a Growler?
The obvious reason for filling a growler over buying bottle or cans is that it is environmentally conscious. The container is reusable, and generates no trash. And filling a growler uses far less energy and water than the bottling/canning process. But in addition to the fresher taste of draft beer, I like growlers over six packs and bombers as I can take home limited-release and seasonal beers that are not bottled. If a brewery has a flagship beer that they are known for, it is almost aways available in six-packs. I want to get something seasonal that cannot be bought at the grocery store, and a growler is often times the only way to get that. And I will add that there are numerous microbreweries and brewpubs that may not have bottling equipment just yet.
My growler collection is taking up far too much room in the RV, but I wouldn’t change anything. It has allowed us to visit dozens of breweries around the country and sample how beer is brewed in different regions of the US. Since drinking and driving in the RV is not an option, we have been able to find a brew we like, fill a growler, and then enjoy it once we have safely set up camp. And we are being environmentally conscious in the process. So I guess I could say that drinking beer from a growler gives me a warm, tingly sensation, but I am not sure if that is from my eco-friendly behavior, or from the beer.