Craft on draft is showing up in more and more convenience stores as consumers drive the demand for this niche brew program.
Pat Pape, Contributing Editor.
Despite restrictions on where and how it can be sold, growler beer is a rapidly growing segment of the beer category, and convenience store operators are getting in on the action.
The term “growler” typically refers to the glass or ceramic bottle, usually 64 ounces and with a ceramic or screw top, which allows beer on tap to become a take-home beverage. The name reportedly dates back to the late 19th century when pub patrons carried their drink of choice home in a covered, galvanized pail. The carbon dioxide (CO2) in the beer made a growling sound whenever it escaped from the pail. No matter how the odd name originated, growlers are showing up in convenience stores and attracting a strong base of fans.
Victor Hashem knows about growlers. As the owner of Stafford Convenience Stores in Syracuse, N.Y., he has successfully sold craft beer for years. “Before the growlers, we had a good selection of imports and craft beers. I started with a couple of sections in the cooler,” he said. “It went from two shelves to four and then to a whole cooler. Then we added two more cooler doors on top of that.”
In 2009, he purchased a heavy-duty growler machine that can dispense three different selections. “I got it with a triple so we always keep three craft beers on tap at all times,” Hashem said. “My stores are a little small—about 1,500 square feet. If I had a bigger room, I’d have added more machines. It’s quite the business now.”
Kale Bokalosky, general manager of Tiger Qwik Marts in Clemson, S.C., saw the growler program at a local Whole Foods grocery and introduced it to his store. “I liked the thought of buying beer in a jug,” he said.
He visited various growler stations, did online research and talked to beer distributors about in-demand brands. Tiger Qwik Marts ordered growler jugs for one store, both 64 and 32-ounce sizes, printed with its own store label. The bottles are sold to the beer connoisseur, who has it filled with a favorite brew, washes the empty container at home (water only—no soap) and returns it for a refill. “But we’ll fill any jug as long as I can get the nozzle into the bottle and seal it,” he said. “You have to seal it or the customer cannot leave the store.”
Bokalosky bought the store’s growler equipment online. It sits on the floor and has its own drain system. “Right now, we have six heads, and we’re going to be bringing in another unit with 12,” he said. “We started less than a year ago and have 900 of our own bottles out there.”
Growler fans are urbane beer drinkers, including all ages and both sexes. “We’re talking about people who’ve been around the world and tried beers in places like Germany,” said Bokalosky.
“Craft beer is a growing segment of the market, and craft beer drinkers are sophisticated customers,” said Joe McGinn, spokesman for Sunoco’s APlus convenience chain, which has growler programs—dubbed the Craft Beer Exchange—in more than 50 outlets in New York and South Carolina.
“They like to sample different products, and they like variety,” he said of Craft Beer Exchange patrons. “If you want to expand to that growing segment, you’ll carry the typical beers, plus craft beers.”
APlus offers customers a choice of six, eight or 12 rotating craft beers on tap, depending on the store. For newbies, APlus allows them to create their own six-packs from a selection of 12-ounce single bottles for $9.99. After consuming the contents, they can return later to buy their favorites in growler format. APlus sells glass growler containers for a one-time charge of $2.99. Customers pay between $7.99 and $16.99 for 64 ounces of beer, depending on the brew.
“Craft beer is an expanding product,” McGinn said. “It’s similar to wine in that people will buy a couple of growlers and take them to a party at someone’s house.”
The growing sales and interest in growler beer are just two of the benefits of adding it to a store’s beverage mix. The offering also provides beer lovers with the freshest possible product and gives them more unique and seasonal choices. “A lot of beer out there you can’t get in bottles or cans,” said Bokalosky. “Some brands only come in a keg.”
Reusing the same growler bottles reduces the customers’ carbon footprint and is obviously a good thing for the environment, an idea Hashem likes. “You don’t have to make more bottles,” he said. “We tell customers to rinse the bottle with hot water and keep it clean.”
It’s the customer’s responsibility to ensure he or she returns with a clean bottle when it’s time to refill, Hashem added. “You’re supposed to clean your own bottle. I’m not going to clean it for you.”
Bokalosky avoids that issue by exchanging each customer’s bottle for one of the freshly cleaned and sanitized bottles he keeps on hand. “I take them, boil them and sanitize them, and they’re ready to go again,” he said.
Despite pros of selling growlers, there is plenty to consider before launching a growler program. First, laws for dispensing beer on tap for off-premise consumption vary by state and even municipality. Some areas allow beer to be poured into and sold in any glass bottle that can be capped or any bottle carrying a federal health warning label. Others require that retailers dispense beer exclusively in their own branded bottles, and some states ban the practice entirely.
“Pennsylvania is where our (Sunoco) headquarters is based and where we have a large market presence,” said McGinn. “But it’s a state that doesn’t allow beer sales in convenience stores.”
In addition, a growler program is labor intensive since only a store employee can legally fill the bottles. APlus employees had both classroom and practical training when the company’s program was launched. “Before we started, we worked with a local brewery and had employees learn how to pour the growlers,” McGinn said. The goal was to ensure minimal product waste and more liquid than foam in the bottles.
Another critical consideration is proper equipment maintenance. APlus stores use a third-party contractor to ensure that all lines are carefully cleaned. “It also requires a great deal of floor space for equipment, and obviously, there are capital costs for purchasing and installing it,” he said.
Onboard with Growler Beer
Intown Market in Atlanta was a busy beer store with 200 craft brands when it added a growler program one year ago. Sulu Jasser, the store general manager, buys kegs from six different distributors and has eight heads ready to serve his patrons. “I could do four more,” he said. “I’ve got a good following for my craft beer. The growler program complements that.”
If all the pieces are in place—your locale allows it and you have the necessary space and capital to get involved—growler beer may be a boon for your operation.
“Find out what people are drinking,” advised Bokalosky. “Have the knowledge base beforehand. Don’t let your distributors take over. Some may try to give you something they’re trying to get rid of. Find out what beers people want to try. Beer has changed. It’s not just something to consume. It’s more like a hobby.”