Growlers and Beer Quality

More and more beer is being sold in “growlers”: containers typically filled via a draft faucet. As retail off-premises licensees are being granted the ability to practice this form of sale, we are seeing a proliferation of growler fill stations everywhere from grocery stores, to gas stations, to actual dedicated retail growler-fill stores. Growlers are gaining in popularity with beer drinkers and have the potential to sell large volumes of beer. Growlers originated many years ago, and it’s important to keep in mind that the original growlers were open pails meant to be filled at the local bar and consumed within hours of being poured.

Photo 1: Example of a pressure rated reusable growler with a resealable swing top closure

In more modern times growlers came about in response to the appearance of brewpubs and craft breweries. The original brewpub bill passed in my state of Oregon in 1985 and included a provision to fill containers with draft beer from the brewpub. This was a cheap and cheerful method for “microbreweries,” most of whom did not have a bottling line, to sell beer-to-go. While customer-supplied containers were legal, we learned to be very cautious after thirsty patrons showed up with unwashed plastic milk jugs and even one confused customer who brought in dirty antifreeze jugs to be filled (true story!). We quickly realized it was better for us to control the containers we filled with our beers, namely clean glass or PET bottles, rated for pressure and with a resealable screw cap or swing top that would hold carbonation (Photo 1). State law at the time mandated a seal for the cap and we applied heat shrink tape with our brewery’s name on it. Pressure-sensitive labels were applied with the brewery and brand name and eventually the government warning. We cleaned our draft lines weekly and were very careful about the filling process and the quality of the products we filled. The sealed bottles were certainly an improvement over an open pail, but we found that even with our precautions the shelf life of these growlers was short and we warned patrons that the beers would be good only for a few days and only if kept refrigerated.

Fill stations outside of the brewery will find it challenging to control most of these parameters and it should be a cause for concern and a focus of education for breweries whose products are sold this way. As with most on-premises taverns and bars, the quality of the draft lines is a critical and often overlooked component of growler sales. In some states the wholesalers clean the draft lines; in others this is not allowed. In any case, dirty draft lines produce off-flavors in the beers they convey. Dirty draft lines may be especially problematic in places like grocery stores, which will be completely unfamiliar with draft system care, cleaning, and maintenance. Off-flavors from the draft lines combined with the oxidation from the fill (described below) have the potential to create some particularly unpleasant flavors (sourness, musty, and diacetyl are most common).

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Photos 2 & 3: Counter-pressure fill stations

The cleanliness of the growler containers, their suitability for pressurized contents, and the amount of air that will be entrapped in the filling process by poor practice are also matters for concern. Although counter-pressure growler fillers do exist (Photos 2 and 3), most of the systems typically seen in the trade are simply plastic tubes fitted into the faucet spout so that the beer fills from the bottom of the container (Photo 4). The container is not pre-evacuated or counter-pressurized, which means that the beer will lose carbonation and pick up oxygen as it fills. The non-pressurized fill generates a lot of foam (Photo 5), and each time the flow is stopped and then restarted a shot of gas in the tube causes a new gush of foam to form. All too often the service person struggles to fill that last little bit of beer into the neck of the container, spilling the better part of a pint of beer into the splash tray in the process. We found that using a pitcher of beer to pour in the last bit of fill worked best for the tube method. The beer gently goes into the growler and pushes the foam out.

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Photo 4: Fill tube in faucet ready for fill Photo 5: Proper clean, pressure rate swing top growler. Note the foam generation during the fill

Beer filled with this method has a very short shelf life compared to a properly filled bottle or can that has undergone a pre-evacuation of air and a counter pressurized fill. The customer may not understand the difference and may treat the growler just like a normal package, perhaps leaving it unrefrigerated and/or drinking it a few weeks after purchase with less-than-satisfactory results.

Growler filling is not an optimal way to sell packaged beer, but it does allow small breweries that don’t have bottling lines to sell to the off-premises trade and it also allows for the sale of exotic one-off beers that will never see a six-pack. When done with care and training, this is a viable take on an age-old method of selling beer to-go. Breweries that sell beer this way, either through an off-site fill station or in-house in their own pubs, should study the issue and educate both their off-site retailers and their in-house bar staff on the best methods possible to fill proper containers. The Brewers Association has put together a brochure which has good information on growler filling and is a place to start training for on- and off-site servers on how to manage growler sales.


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