Back in 2013, I wrote about the pros and cons of growler bars, which were just starting to pop up in Calgary, where I lived at the time. To be blunt, I wasn’t exactly sold on the experience. The cost wasn’t great, the selection was so-so and staff filling the growlers needed hella more training.
Since then, a lot has changed in Alberta. In addition to more liquor stores now having on-site growler bars, the provincial government made it easier for small breweries to set up shop, which has resulted in a bumper crop of tiny breweries that don’t have canning or bottling lines, but would love to sell you beer in growlers.
Both of these factors have made me reconsider my feelings on growlers, and I’ve come around to them. It’s important to note my location – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – as where you live has an impact on how prevalent growler culture is.
Thoughts on Growlers, 2019 Edition
Stores are getting better at it
When I first tried filling a growler in 2013, the staff at my local liquor store didn’t have any idea how to use their growler bar equipment. They helplessly dispensed overflowing bottles of sad foam, and didn’t know enough to understand what they were doing wrong. It would take them ages to get enough beer into the growler, and the resulting beer had lost a lot of fizz. They also didn’t bother to do things like rinse out the growler before filling it.
Since then, liquor store growler bars have gotten better at training, and as growler culture has flourished, staff are used to filling more than a couple growlers per shift. Not having to wait 5 minutes while someone bumbles their way through filling your bottle with flat, stale beer is a change for the better.
Liquor stores have also figured out that people want interesting things that aren’t necessarily available in the regular cooler section. As noted earlier, lots of small breweries lack canning or bottling gear, so draft is the way to sample their wares. Bars are the obvious choice, but it’s nice to have the option to grab their beer at a tap at a liquor store.
Remembering to bring your growler
The crappy thing about growler culture is remembering to bring your growler. I work downtown, close to a great little brewery with a tap room. Problem is, I often forget my bottle at home, so I can’t get it filled on the way home. If you have the extra room in a desk drawer, by all means stash a CLEAN AND WASHED growler bottle at the office. You don’t want any stale beer stink turning noses (and heads) at your workplace. You can also keep a howler handy for a smaller fill on the way home – they’re 32 oz, which is half the volume of a standard growler.
Another option for the forgetful: A local Liquor Depot has a nifty canning contraption that they use to seal 1 litre cans filled from their growler taps. Pick your beer, and they’ll fill the can, then seal it with a standard can lid that you can crack open at home. While I think the can used to be included free with the fill, they’ve since started charging for it. Bah. That’ll learn you not to forget your bottle, bub.
Growler varieties on the market
Since 2013, a whole industry has sprung up to cater to growler-loving beer geeks. You can spend $5-10 on a basic glass growler, or you can get fancy with everything from metal-sided insulated growlers that are like a giant thermos, to things that look like tiny kegs, to crazy copper vessels worth north of $200. Local liquor stores like Wine and Beyond sell a bunch of types, but you’d be surprised by how easy it is to find growlers in unexpected places. Kitchen stores are a good starting point, but home and outdoor shops like Home Depot, Cabela’s and MEC have been known to stock them, too.
Craft breweries to the rescue
There are a ton (tun?) of new breweries in Alberta, and this has been a great thing for growlers. In fact, a growler may be the only way to take home an interesting beer from a new brewery. Canning beer is expensive from both a gear and consumables perspective, and bottling in glass is also tough. Bottling beer one 650 mL bottle at a time is a giant pain in the ass unless you have some larger industrial equipment to do it.
Also: despite what you get at the depot, bottles don’t cost $0.10, and the labour involved in cleaning, filling and capping gets very expensive very quickly. A lot of breweries focus on draft sales for this reason, with kegs heading to pubs or to growler bars. Many small breweries also have tap rooms or growler filling stations so you can buy your beer from the source. In my experience, prices can be very reasonable for a growler fill at the brewery.
Some craft breweries still don’t get it
A couple years ago, I took one of my growlers to a newish local craft brewery in Edmonton, expecting to get it filled with something interesting. Normally, growlers are interchangeable – a 64 oz bottle from one brewery or liquor store is fine at another one, which is great. Who wants to have to have a cupboard filled with 12 different non-returnable growlers from each brewery and liquor store in your city?
However, when I tried to get my trusty 64 oz growler filled, I was informed that they didn’t fill standard growler bottles and instead would only fill their brewery’s custom 1 L bottles, which had a special top that their filling gizmo required. Instead of buying yet another growler to take up space in my pantry, I made a point of walking out without any beer. Because who needs that kind of crap? I’m all for breweries taking pride in their product, but your beer isn’t so special that it will only fit in one type of bottle with your preferred sealing cap and silkscreened logo on it. Don’t preach; just fill my goddamned bottle.
Freshness pros and cons
Breweries and liquor stores all have different standards when it comes to filling a growler. Some use fancy machines that minimise foam and control the pressure when filling. Some purge the growler with CO2 before filling. And some just pour the beer straight from a bar tap into the bottle. How the growler is filled will affect how long the beer will keep in the growler. Personally, I don’t assume that a growler will be fine beyond the day I pick it up.
If you’re buying straight from the brewery, there’s a good chance the beer is fresh and the keg was recently tapped. (But not always.) To check for freshness at either a brewery or a liquor store, don’t hesitate to ask for a sample before filling. Some liquor stores have quite a few kegs on the go, so the only way to gauge freshness is to have a taste before you commit to a fill. Is it a bit too flat? Any funky flavours or aromas?
When a beer is canned, bottled or kegged at a brewery, sanitation is very closely monitored. With growlers, the weak link can be your own bottle. Because some places still don’t seem to rinse growlers before they’re filled, make sure you show up with a clean and rinsed bottle. To help keep your own growler bottle clean, make sure you rinse it a few times with hot water AS SOON as you’ve finished the beer, then let it drip dry upside down.
Any growler tips of your own to share? Drop us a line in the comments!