Growlers: The Hefty Bottles That Could Upend the Beer Industry

Feb. 3, 2012 - DANIEL WALLACE      Times.TP_349643_WALL_beerlaws_6 (02/03/2012  Tampa) Tampa Bay Brewing Company bartender Vala

Consider the growler -- those large bottles that beer drinkers use to take microbrews home straight from the tap. The name for the container, which typically holds 64 ounces, dates back to before Prohibition, but today it represents the burgeoning craft-brewing movement that is taking business away from giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD).

The same consumers who have propelled the food industry trends toward organic agriculture and artisanal techniques have also embraced small, independent brewers. Their market share is still small -- accounting for just 6.5 percent of the beer produced in the United States last year -- but it's where the growth is at, with volume rising 13 percent in 2011 and 15 percent in 2012. By comparison, the overall beer market is actually shrinking, from more than 207 million barrels sold in 2008 to almost 201 million four years later.

With the explosion of breweries and brewpubs in the past 30 years, the battle is now about getting in front of the customer. This is why Bud and Coors ads are plastered all over sporting events and on TV; why there has been massive consolidation in the industry; and why the small guys are taking on restrictive laws on growlers, which vary widely by state. It's hard to squeeze onto a crowded store shelf, so craft brewers are trying to meet their customers at the source.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Growlers are "a definite, significant source of revenue," said Daniel Curran, VP of sales and marketing at Devil's Canyon Brewing Co., a craft producer in San Carlos, Calif., about 25 miles south of San Francisco. Not being able to fill them "wouldn't shut us down, but we'd definitely feel it."

The beer business has a well-defined and defended three-tier structure of producers, distributors and retailers. (It's not the only industry run that way: Try buying a new car directly from Ford or Toyota instead of going through a dealer.) But with most Americans now living within 10 miles of a craft brewer, according to the Brewers Association trade group, the independents are seeking tweaks and adjustments to "off-sale" rules, which pertain to beer poured into growlers.

In New York City, filling a container with your craft beer of choice can be as easy as going to the right drugstore. Whole Foods carries growlers along with beer on tap, but only at certain locations. In California -- the country's most populous state, its No. 1 beer producer and home to one out of every five craft beers -- it's not OK for a brewer to fill a growler or container that wasn't bought on site.

Yet the Golden State is about to change this: A bill to allow people to reuse growlers (eliminating packaging waste is part of their appeal) passed the legislature without a single "no" vote, and awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. "Growlers have become an increasingly popular way for customers to buy beer from local craft breweries," said state Assembly Member Wesley Chesbro, who backed the bill, in a statement. "This change in the law makes sense for consumer freedom of choice and the growth of the microbrew industry."

There are other benefits beyond direct sales such as brand exposure. People "come to the brewery, they meet the staff -- it's that sense of community that's reinforced," added Curran, who holds growler fills every Friday afternoon, along with a monthly bash with live music. Though he wouldn't specify sales figures, Curran noted Devil's Canyon is increasing distribution into Eastern states as well as abroad, and is among the top 100 U.S. beer producers by volume. (A-B InBev owns almost half the market.)

California's major distributors aren't fazed. "Growlers are a craft brewers' issue," a spokeswoman for the California Beer & Beverage Distributors said regarding the new state legislation. "There are people who prefer craft brews vs. domestic brews. That really won't have an impact on beer sales."

Perhaps craft brewers are catering to a distinct slice of discriminating customers. But given craft's current rate of growth, the makers and wholesalers for Bud Light, Coors Light and whatnot have good reason to respond. "They're coming up with other products that pull some of our customers back to them," according to Scott Marks, associate manager with the California Craft Brewers Association.The state of Florida already has seen pushback on reforming growler rules.

For the time being, being able to get freshly made beer to go from a local producer has reached a tipping point: It's become cool. "If you show up at my house," said Curran of Devil's Canyon, "I'd rather you bring a growler than potato salad."