Before 2012, when Virginia changed ABC laws so that breweries could sell their products directly to consumers, growlers were a rare sight in Richmond. But as the local beer scene builds steam, the handy portable vessels offer a number of benefits over their big-name canned or bottled counterparts.
As with brewing, there is an art to the growler phenomenon.
“The whole idea is convenience and freshness,” says Growlers To Go general manager Eric Wetzel. Since 2014, his company, which has locations in Short Pump, Duck, North Carolina, and its flagship on the Boulevard, has been at the forefront of offering fresh brews to the masses.
Beyond maintaining freshness, Wetzel says growlers provide an environmental benefit as well. “You purchase this bottle, it’s yours, and you take it with you and take care of it.”
That reuse is something he says hasn’t caught on as it should — like so many reusable grocery bags that people often forget to bring into the store, Wetzel says he frequently sells customers new growlers after they admit to leaving their old ones at home.
“That’s not the point of growlers,” he says. He recommends a vessel that will make you proud. And to that end, Growlers To Go has teamed up with local screen printers Shine Craft Vessel Co. to offer stainless steel growlers that are both shatterproof and insulated.
That shatterproof quality can be important. Wetzel says he’s had more than one customer return to his shop with shoes soaked with fresh brew after an unfortunate mishap. “We see them come in, fill up, and then come back a few minutes later saying they dropped it or it broke in their car,” he says. Growlers To Go does its best to help when this happens but must stay within the confines of Virginia state law — replacing the spilled beer isn’t possible.
Then there’s the amount of beer you get. Growlers are typically sold in two sizes, 32 or 64 ounces. Wetzel explains that the 32-ounce growler is better suited for a single person who wants to drink two pints of beer. The 64-ounce size offers — if not demands — beer to share. Either way, if you open it, he says, you’re going to want to drink it fast. You’ve got about 24 hours before it starts to lose taste or go flat.
“It doesn’t have a long shelf life, unless you fill it with high octane beer and seal it and age it,” Wetzel says. If the container is unopened and left in a cool spot, the beer will last a while. To test this theory, he filled a growler on Christmas Day and opened it months later. “It tasted great,” he says, noting the alcohol content seemed to have increased as well.
But for regular growler ownership, cleaning and maintenance is key. “People don’t realize beer is alive,” he says. His shop is familiar enough with the problem that his staff will often just swap your moldy old growler with a fresh one from their shelves.
And Growlers To Go isn’t the only option for filling up. There are also crowlers, a fancy new mechanism that allows breweries to offer their product in an even more convenient, one-off sealed can. “The number of can beers in the last three years has just skyrocketed,” Wetzel says.
Many local restaurants also offer beer fills, and some even deliver them to your door step. “I don’t see [customers asking for growler fills] on the regular like I’d like to,” says Chris Gerardi, the general manager at Tarrant’s Cafe on Broad Street.
James Talley, a partner at the Cask Café & Market, says it has 16 taps offering a wide variety of beers to take home. He says it’s regulars who most often use the service. But other customers find it attractive, too. “There’s plenty of people, they see a certain beer and they want to take it home,” he says. “It depends on the beer.”
Other spots have forgone growler fills simply because folks aren’t asking for them. Mac McCormack says his policy differs across his three locations — McCormack’s Big Whisky Grill at Regency Square has a license to sell cans, while his spot in the Fan and McCormack’s Irish Pub in Shockoe Bottom keep their beer in-house.
But for Wetzel, it’s his business model to offer his on-tap product to the masses, especially short-lived or special releases. “We get to introduce people to so many different styles,” he says. “We open the floodgates to people and help guide them through the process.”