The Growler Standoff

TheGrowlerStandoff3_photo_Zak_Rotelllo2

The Growler Standoff with Zak Rotello and Chris Quinn

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The Growler Standoff: Free the Growler

By Zak Rotello

If you’re already a Mash Tun reader, I highly doubt I need to school you on growlers. But for the uninitiated: growlers began as lidded metal pails that customers (or possibly their kids) would fill up with draught beer at the local saloon. Taverns have been filling growlers since the late 1800s when the term was coined, and in modern times, breweries have used them as a convenient way to get their beer in the hands of consumers without dealing with the complex maze of labeling, licensing, and packaging issues that come with bottles and cans. Modern growlers run the gamut from the ever-popular 64-ounce glass jug, to handmade ceramic works of art, to high tech CO2-pressurized, double-walled, stainless steel vessels.

 

Admittedly, they’re an imperfect container for beer (see Chris Quinn’s counterpoint), but still a useful one. They’re great for our environment, since there’s almost zero packaging waste and they’re reusable. They’re great for enjoying draught beers that may not be available in bottled or can packages. They’re not so great for extended storage due to oxidation and/or carbonation loss. But still, I’d much rather have a 4 day old growler of double IPA, than a bottle that’s been sitting on the store shelf for 90+ days. And if brewers truly thought they were such a horrible container for their beer, they wouldn’t be selling them.

 

Stay with me, this gets a little technical…

 

In April 2014, in response to many requests from their retailers and publicans, the Illinois Craft Brewer’s Guild issued a press release stating, “Filling growlers is a well-established right or special privilege in Illinois that brewers have in order to guarantee and protect the integrity and freshness of their product.” The guild cited a section in the Illinois liquor code that prohibits retailers from “repackaging”, or refilling original containers. Of course, that clause exists for good reason – no one likes the idea of unscrupulous bartenders refilling the Van Winkle bottle with Very Old Barton when no one’s looking. Brewers also expressed their concern over quality. If someone brought in a dirty growler, would a bar still fill it with beer and potentially give their brand a bad reputation?

 

Brewers’ concerns about cleanliness and sanitation are understandable, but that concern should probably be aimed at pub glassware first and foremost. Considering the vast majority of draft beer is served over the bar at restaurants and bars in Illinois, it’s uncertain why the brewers’ concern about draught quality only surfaced when bars & restaurants started asking about growlers. Furthermore, the code they cited doesn’t refer to growlers.

 

A growler is not an original container any more than a pint glass, or a tulip, or a pitcher – kegs are the original container for draught beer. Growlers are purchased separately from the cost of the liquid inside – you might bring your own growler to the pub, or you might need to buy a new one on-site. And if bars weren’t allowed to “repackage” draught beer into another non-original container, there’d be no legal way to enjoy a pint at your local pub.

 

Ok, you still reading? Stay with me….

 

So I searched and searched, and I still haven’t seen anything in the Illinois liquor code or brewer’s licenses that gives brewers any special rights or privileges pertaining to growlers. What I did find, is that per federal TTB definition, filling growlers is considered a draft beer service function, which is entirely different from packaging or bottling. It could be argued that anyone who fills a growler in this state, including breweries, are allowing their customers to leave with an open, unsealed container – something you really don’t want a cop to find in your car. And that’s where we’re at in Illinois. We have this unnecessary standoff over why it’s ok to put beer in this glass, but not that glass.

 

Bored yet? I promise we’re almost done.

 

It’s time we modernized our growler laws to reflect the current market. Other states have made serious errors in writing these laws. Florida consumers were restricted to filling 32oz and 128oz growlers, but the standard 64oz growler was illegal. In California, until very recently, consumers had to have a specific brewer’s growler, meaning you had to make sure you had the right branded growler with you, depending on where you stopped to fill up. Even now there’s a patchwork of interpretations of the law in Chicago – Brewery X will fill this, Brewery Y won’t fill that.

 

Clearly, it can take many years to fix poorly written and vague laws. Right now, the slate is clean, and we have the opportunity to collaborate on a bill that ensures product quality, and skips over the errors that other states have made. Shouldn’t we all be working together to make this the best state to build a brewery, a bottle shop, or a pub? Aren’t we all trying to do the same thing, responsibly sell more fresh, local beer to our guests? At last count, 41 other states allowed growler fills at retail. Do we really want to be the last one to do this properly, just behind North Dakota? Arkansas?

 

So.

 

This is where you, the consumer, come in. If you think it’d be convenient to grab growlers of draught beer at your local, make your voice heard and help us modernize Illinois beer laws, head to FREETHEGROWLERS.COM, read the spiel, check out the links, and sign the petition. Tell your favorite brewer that you’d buy more of their beer if you could get it closer to where you live. Ask them to work with the storeowners and bar managers that sell their beer. It’s time that we ended the growler showdown. Let freedom ring.

If brewers can fill growlers in a sanitary way, other businesses can too.

 

Zak is the beer dictator at Olympic Tavern in Rockford, IL Follow his hairbrained bliss on Instagram at @zakrotello and @olympictavern.

 

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TheGrowlerStandoff Chris Quinn Portrait_By_Calvin_Fredrickson2

 

The Growler Standoff: Nix the Growler

By Chris Quinn

 

First and foremost, I would like to say that I have a good deal of respect for Zak, and I feel his reasons for wanting a change in the growlers laws in Illinois are legitimate. That said, unlike almost every beer retailer I know in the state, I am not a fan of growler sales. This isn’t to say that I am a fan of growlers at breweries but not at bottle shops and bars. I don’t like them, period. However, I do feel that growlers play an important role for many breweries here in Illinois, which I will get into later.

 

To me, the primary reasons I hear for growler sales to be legalized for licensed retailers can be summed up as, “If they can do it, then I should be able to as well” and “Growlers could represent a significant source of extra sales (read: money) for me.” I agree with both of these points. I think it isn’t fair that taprooms have growlers and retailers can’t, and I also agree that they could potentially lead to increased sales, or at least higher-margin sales. So, then, why exactly don’t I like growlers? Because they are bad for the beer.

 

Quite simply, of all the ways one commonly drinks beer, a growler is at the very bottom of the list, right alongside those tabletop self-serve beer towers you occasionally find at sports bars. So right off the bat I think we are fighting for an inferior type of packaged beer. And before we get any further, I think it needs to be made clear that growlers are not a form of draft beer, they are a form of packaged beer and should be compared against other forms of packaged beer.

 

It doesn’t take much more than a common-sense look at the system for filling growlers to see why it’s always better to get a beer from a bottle or can if you are getting beer to go, all of which revolve around the fact that breweries spend a ton of money, time, and energy on their packaging lines. I would argue that the packaging of beer is the most crucial part of the process – whether a beer is going into a keg, bottle, or can. This is because it’s during packaging that so much can go wrong – much of which can quickly and drastically decrease the quality of even the best beer in the world.

 

Craft breweries literally spend millions of dollars on their packaging lines to ensure that their beer gets to you in pristine condition. To think this can be matched by some bartender sticking a piece of vinyl tube over the faucet of a system designed from the ground up to serve beer for immediate consumption, and opening it up to dump into a glass jug is silly. Draft beer is meant to be consumed within minutes of being served. Not 24 hours. Minutes. After that, the carbonation will rapidly start to leave the beer. Shortly after, it will begin to take on oxidized flavors and quickly bear little resemblance to what the brewer originally intended. People say that a growler is fine as long as you drink it the day you bought it. I’ll concede that point – the beer will taste fine. Not great, but fine.

 

Want to get an idea for how a growler tastes? Open up five bottles or cans of beer, pour them all into glasses, then take one to drink and set the other four back in the fridge. By the time you are on the fourth and fifth beer, there will be noticeable differences in the carbonation of the beer. “Who cares,” you say? I do! And you should too. Why settle for a less than ideal experience when you can just open up a new bottle or can each time? Those vessels have been counter-pressure filled specifically to hold their carbonation until opened. This is not the case with growlers.

 

And this isn’t even beginning to get into the area of cleanliness. Beer is pretty much a sugary dream come true for many wild bacteria, yeast, and molds that can’t wait to infect your beer. Then there’s the fact that the last beer in your growler was a cinnamon chili stout, and now there’s a pilsner going into it. A quick rinse under the sink isn’t going to remove either of these things. To remove these flavors a thorough washing is required, ideally followed by a quick sanitization to make sure there’s nothing bad left in your growler. If this doesn’t happen, will it ruin your beer? Most likely not – although vinegar-producing acetobacter, which is pretty much everywhere and on everything (including dirty draft lines), can turn a beer sour within a few days. But the risks of contaminating the beer in your growler are orders of magnitude higher than they are for bottled or canned beer. If you tell someone you got an infected bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, it’s a national story. If you tell someone your growler of BCS was infected, they wait for you to get to the point of your story.

 

So, what would a “good” growler system involve? Above starting with clean vessels, I think having a counter-pressure filler is a must (if your customers expect to use their growlers like they would any other packaged beer). The problems with counter-pressure growler fillers is that by design, they fill beer under pressure – and almost all growlers are not pressure-rated in any way. This means if you filled normal growlers on this system, eventually they will fail (i.e. explode.) This is seriously dangerous, especially when you consider the fact that people are most likely going to be handling these growlers at the time they explode. Even pressure-rated growlers can conceivably fail after prolonged use. To me, the answer is to only fill metallic growlers – which are pricey and put an extra burden on consumers and retailers.

 

Another problem with counter-pressure fillers is that just as draft systems are designed for pouring beer for immediate consumption, counter-pressure fillers are designed for packaged beer – meaning you really need to have separate lines to fill growlers versus draft beers. So it’s not exactly like everything you have on tap is necessarily available for sale in a growler. So do bars have duplicate lines and duplicate costs for each beer they serve? I don’t see that happening.

 

So why are growlers a good thing for some Illinois breweries? Because they are highly profitable. The revenue generated by a small brewery’s taprooms, where they are able to sell their brews for 25 times the cost it took to make, is at times essential to their survival. If their ability to have exclusive rights to fill growlers with their beer helps them survive through the early years, then let’s not take that away from them.

 

We are in a time where there are more choices of bottled and canned craft beer than there has ever been, and I think you would be hard pressed to find any brewer who would rather have their beer served out of a growler than having the same beer out of a bottle or can from a professional packaging line. On top of it all, there are small breweries out there that need the extra margin that comes from direct sales in their tap rooms. So we’re fighting to serve worse beer, while at the same time hurting some of our smallest local brewers. Why do we want this so bad again?

 

Chris owns The Beer Temple and hosts a weekly radio broadcast on Lumpen Radio called The Insiders Roundtable, which was once delayed by a Villanova men’s basketball game. 3/24/2016: Never forget.

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