Arbitrary Food Liquids

Arbitrary: Beer Economics 101 – The Growler Bar

Beer Economics 101 – The Growler Bar
A growler bar in Calgary. In the foreground, 64 oz jugs waiting to be filled. It’s an interesting idea, but be careful about the prices. You may be better off sticking to bottles in the cooler, if they’re available.

I’m not sure how common these are outside of Alberta, but in the past few months, I’ve seen a couple new growler bars freshly installed at liquor stores in this province. I found one at the massive new Wine and Beyond liquor store in south Edmonton last fall, and the newly renovated Liquor Depot in Calgary’s Brentwood neighbourhood also recently put in a growler bar.

Before I go any further, let’s get the terminology down. A growler bar is an area in a liquor store that sells draft beer from a counter of draft beer taps. The stores sell bottles ($4 at Liquor Depot), which they then fill for a set price per bottle. My Liquor Depot has two sizes of bottles – the growler (a 64 oz jug, really), and the howler (a 32 oz bottle, with one of those nifty Grolsch-style flip-top caps). Once you finish your bottle, you can wash it out and bring it back for refilling at the growler bar.

So that’s what a growler bar is. But, perhaps, the more important question to ask is “Why? Why are growler bars suddenly popping up at liquor stores?”


The Experience

Some folks just love the draft-beer experience. If you genuinely believe that a draft version of your favourite beer poured from a tap is better than the bottled or canned version, then you’re probably going to be curious about growlers and howlers.

To that end, I thought I’d try the growler bar at my local Liquor Depot to better understand the experience. I’ve tried it twice so far, and this is how it went down:

First trip: I bought a 64 oz growler bottle, and filled it with Tamarack Hat Trick, an amazing IPA from south of the border that I’d never encountered before. The draft line was producing some super-foamy beer, and the liquid level, once settled, was nowhere near the 64 oz line on the side of the bottle. I’d generously guesstimate it may have been closer to 54 oz., but I didn’t take a precise measurement. The guy at the bar didn’t seem to completely know what he was doing. When he sealed my bottle – putting on a cap and placing a long sticker across the top of the cap, which attached to the glass bottle below – he didn’t do it right, so I wound up with some beer on the inside of my shopping bag by the time I got home. Awesome. On the plus side, the staffer was happy to let me try samples of several available beers before I settled on Hat Trick.

Second trip: Much better. The guy who helped me actually knew how to fill the growler without churning up foam. It was filled to the line, which I appreciate. I mentioned my previous experience, and he told me I should have been given a discount at the till for the less-than-full bottle. This time, the bottle was well sealed and didn’t spill in my bag on the walk home. Progress.


The Math

I think it would be fair to say that most people either dislike or hate math, and growler bars are counting on this consumer math apathy.

In many cases, if you run the numbers, you’ll find that buying your beer in draft-style 64/32 oz growlers/howlers is more expensive than buying it in smaller bottles. This runs counter to what you’d expect; in the grocery store cereal aisle, a 1 kg box is only marginally more expensive than the 500 g box, even though you’re getting twice as much. Same thing with tons of stuff you’d buy at the supermarket. If you assume that buying your beer in a growler is cheaper due to the extra size, you’d often be wrong.

Add to this the confusion caused by non-metric measures in Canada, especially among younger folks, and you’ve got a generation of beer drinkers who don’t know what an ounce is, never mind if they’re getting a deal.

Don’t believe me? Here are some sweet, sweet numbers.

Rickard’s limited edition Oakhouse Winter Lager was available both on tap and in six-packs of standard Canadian long-neck bottles at the same Liquor Depot, so that’s what I used as a comparison. The price for a 64 oz growler was $12.99. For a six-pack of 341 mL bottles, the price was $13.99. Assuming that all ounce measures are imperial instead of U.S., those six bottles of beer are each 12 oz, so the pack has a combined volume of 72 oz, or 8 oz more than a growler. That means you’re spending $0.20 per oz for the beer in a growler, and $0.19 per oz for beer in a bottle. In that case, there’s not much difference between the two, but the math still shows you’d be paying $14.40 for that six-pack, not $13.99, if you were paying the growler’s per-ounce price.

The case was far more dodgy for Fruli, another beer for sale in bottle or on tap at the growler bar. A 64-oz growler sells for $45.99; a 250 mL bottle sells for $3.99. This time, I’m going to convert to millilitres to do the math. Again, assuming that 64-oz bottle is 1,818 mL (the imperial conversion), the per-millilitre cost is $0.025. In 250 mL bottle format, the per-millilitre cost is $0.016. Put another way, you’d pay $29.09 for 64 oz of Fruli if you bought it in small bottles. Put yet another way, at the growler price of $0.025 per mL, a 250 mL bottle of Fruli would cost you $6.25. That is very clearly a terrible, terrible deal.


The Reality

It’s clear why growler bars are showing up in liquor stores: they’re great for business.

So, when does it make sense to buy a growler? When there’s a beer on tap that is truly unique, and that isn’t readily available in the cooler. In my case, as much as the pricing wasn’t great, the growler bar exposed me to Tamarack Hat Trick, an amazing beer I never would have tried had it not been for the growler format.

Just make sure you do your math before opting for a growler instead of a six-pack. Chances are good you’re not getting the deal you think you’re getting.



  1. If you go to Brew Brothers located in the basement under the District Urban Tavern on 11th Ave S.W. between 5th and 6th Street you can get any of their six locally produced beers in growlers. It’s five bucks for the reusable growler and only 10 bucks for the beer, which isn’t available in bottles. It’s the kind of great straight from the brewery deal that you get in places like B.C. and the U.S. I highly recommend the Black Pilsner and Ambush Pale Ale. I haven’t had their IPA in a while but I remember it being good.

  2. I tried this at Liquor Depot a few times. I had the same foamy experience each time, and felt ripped off. I didn’t get any sort of discount. Seeing as they still haven’t figured out how to properly operate the taps a couple months in, I don’t think I’ll go back.

  3. I’m going to have to deduct some marks here because you didn’t show your work;

    Is your math including the deposit on the bottles, or that you (presumably) are not paying the extra $4 when you bring a growler bottle back for refill?

    I like that you’re looking at it this way, but I’m not sure you’ve got all the data.

    • Good on you for taking me to task. 🙂 Deposits are extra tricky and particularly complicated to sort out, which is why I left them out of the original post.

      I don’t consider the $4 charge for a growler to be a “deposit” because, as I understand it, you can’t just return the bottle for a refund after you’ve purchased it. While I could be wrong, I believe the consumer buys the bottle outright, then never has to deal with a bottle charge again. If you want, you can divide the $4 by the number of refills you’ll likely get with a bottle. So, eight fills = $0.50 per fill for your bottle; 16 fills would drop the bottle cost to $0.25 per fill, etc.

      The deposit for beer bottles is a bit more complicated, as different jurisdictions have different deposit/recycling schemes. In Alberta — where I live — glass bottles under 1 L have a deposit of $0.10 and a non-refundable “Container Recycling Fee” of $0.08 per bottle. (Full program details here: ) In practical terms, each six-pack of standard long-neck beer bottles will have an additional $0.60 worth of deposits, and $0.48 in non-refundable recycling fees. Total cost? An extra $1.08 at the till for every six-pack, though you’ll get $0.60 of that back at the depot when you cash in your bottles. But you’ll never see that $0.48 back. (And, do note, that’s roughly how much it would cost you for a $4 growler bottle if you split the cost between eight fills.)

      I hope that adds some clarity?

  4. I think the biggest difference is that not all growler fills are created equal. The best way to fill a growler is using counter pressure. That ensure the beer doesn’t lose CO2 and also never gets exposed to oxygen.

    There a re few locations in Calgary with counter pressure fillers

    Check out to know the difference and for locations in Calgary with counter pressure fillers.

  5. You seem to have overlooked a few facts:
    There is a built in “serving fee”.
    Typically a howler costs about $2 -$3 more than half a growler.
    Some places will charge the growler prices if you fill 2 or more howlers, but that is not a rule.

    A lot of places use the draft bar to introduce new products that are not stocked in bottles. Only if the product does well in draft sales will they start stocking the bottles or cans.

    Many places, when a keg is getting close to its scheduled end of sale, will discount what is remaining, usually by half.
    This quite often makes for some great deals.

    The “tasting experience”
    A lot of times one does not want to chance buying an untried beer, only to discover that it is not to your tastes.
    Getting the samples at a growler bar precludes this, plus, with the usual 3 sample limit, is still a pleasant way to have a small beer, for free, while filling up.