People who have entered into conversation with Mr Fueled by Beer will be familiar with his view that many of today’s trends in the UK craft beer scene mirror those he observed several years earlier in the USA. One such trend that is beginning to attract attention over here concerns the lowly growler. However, as much as he would love to see take-home draft beer follow the American example, Mr Fueled by Beer does have some doubts…
For the uninitiated a growler is a take-home container for draft beer; typically a glass jug (or ‘flagon’ in posh Brit-speak) that most commonly holds 64 fl oz (4 US pints), although other sizes are available. For years Americans have been using them to take home beer poured from kegs at their local brewpub. However back in Seattle in 2010 we observed the beginnings of a change.
It was at this time that Mr Fueled by Beer had his first experience with growlers; at Georgetown Brewing Co., a large (by micro standards) wholesale production brewery whose kegs of Manny’s Pale Ale are a staple at bars and restaurants throughout the Seattle area. They had recently opened an expanded retail shop at the brewery and decided to offer pre-filled growlers for sale alongside their usual keg lineup. I wrote about it at the time.
Basically you walk in, taste the beers currently on tap, purchase pre-filled growlers of your chosen tipple, then take it home to your fridge. Next time, you return the empty growler(s) and swap for freshly filled ones; the brewery does the growler cleaning before refilling. Back then the price for refills worked out at $1.50/pint; ridiculously inexpensive compared to the pub price, yet it didn’t seem to hurt the brewery’s wholesale business.
Around the same time Fremont Brewing Co., who were then one of Seattle’s newest upstart breweries, struck a deal with Whole Foods, the upscale supermarket chain, to sell pre-filled growlers of their beer at Seattle area stores. Our Whole Foods in Bellevue was one of these first outlets and, just like with the Georgetown growler, you took home a growler of Fremont beer then returned the empty to the Whole Foods store to swap it out for a freshly filled one. Once again I wrote about it at the time.
Within a year or so, with Fremont Brewing struggling to keep up with demand for pre-filled growlers, Whole Foods realized that it was time for the next phase in their support of locally produced craft beer: growler stations where customers could select from a range of tapped craft beer kegs and fill their own growlers right there in the store. Today across America (where local liquor laws allow), more than 100 Whole Foods stores have growler stations. And one or two among their nine UK stores have them as well. The London Evening Standard wrote about it in 2014.
Fast forward to 2015; the big boys are now getting in on the act. Shortly after we left Seattle in 2013 our regular grocery store (a QFC, part of Kroger) underwent refurbishment and when it reopened it included a twelve tap growler station. And during the last six months Kroger, QFC’s parent, has started installing growler stations at their mainstream grocery stores in several states across the country. The photo here is from a Kroger store in Columbus where BrewDog is currently building a US production facility. You can bet there will be locally brewed Punk IPA on one of these taps before the year is done.
So, craft beer growler filling stations are becoming common fixtures across America at mainstream supermarkets, drug stores, convenience stores, beer & wine shops, and even petrol stations; basically wherever local laws don’t prohibit them. What does all this mean for the UK?
Well, the hype so far surrounding UK growlers appears to be confined mostly to London. This makes sense because the greatest concentration of UK craft breweries who follow the American model – in other words they package beer in kegs – are located inside the M25. As reported in the Standard article linked to above, outlets such as brewery taprooms and specialist beer shops are no-brainers for growler sales. This of course includes the keg breweries of the Bermondsey Beer Mile and Hackney which this blog has covered extensively. The photo here was taken during a visit to the Howling Hops tank bar at Hackney Wick. The list could go on.
Outside the M25 it’s a different story. A major barrier must be crossed if more of the UK is to be opened up to the lowly growler: it is the dominance of cask beer. Of course this is not an issue for the furtherance of craft beer in general; any growth in craft beer that displaces mass market lager, regardless of its packaging, is ultimately what we all want. However it is a problem for the furtherance of growlers when so many brewers seem to be reluctant to explore the growth opportunities presented by keg beer, keeping all their eggs in one basket – a cask basket.
Where does this leave us in the provinces, a place like Reading for example. Right now, if Mr Fueled by Beer’s local Sainsbury’s were to install a growler station, within the immediate twenty mile radius where there are around twenty breweries, no more than five could supply the taps: Lovibonds, Siren and Wild Weather for sure, and possibly Hop King and Zero Degrees. There would be no problem sourcing keg beer from London breweries but this defeats the object of promoting locally produced craft beer.
At the top of this post doubt was expressed about the UK growler trend. In Mr Fueled by Beer’s view, if UK brewers outside London have to be dragged kicking and screaming to new and growing segments of craft beer demand then I fear the chances of growler stations springing up at our local Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Waitrose stores are low. Perhaps the phenomenon of growler stations in grocery stores may end up being one aspect of craft beer where the UK does not follow the US. I hope time proves me wrong.