Carolina Beer Guy: Crowler or growler?

CANNED ON DEMAND: Green Man Brewery bartender Evan Rosenberg fills a 32-ounce Crowler can. The vessel will then be sealed using a Crowler machine, left, a method that's becoming more popular at the brewery than the still-available 64-ounce glass growler. Photos by Mike Christopher

Beer lovers know the routine. While visiting a brewery, some new ale or lager is so tasty that you must take some home.

In operations where the beer isn’t available to-go in cans or bottles, you buy a refillable glass growler bottle, drink the beer, clean and wash out the container, then stash it away in a closet or cabinet, vowing to use it again. But often it just sits there gathering dust, and another growler is purchased down the line.

The growler has long been a staple of Asheville craft beer, but it’s been facing competition from the Crowler — a single-use, 32-ounce aluminum can that’s likewise filled and sealed on demand. Developed and popularized by Oskar Blues Brewery and the Ball Corp., the Crowler (a trademarked name) has found a foothold on the local beer scene.

Jeremy Rudolf, the man behind the Crowler at the company Crowler Nation, says the product is used by about 2,000 breweries nationwide. While working at Oskar Blues in Colorado, he visited Ball and noticed the company had some small tabletop canning machines.

“I thought they would be fun for the taproom as a growler solution and to stop selling glass,” Rudolf says. “We got permission to put the machine in our taproom in Colorado.”

The Crowler is also used at the Oskar Blues taproom in Brevard and offered to other breweries through Crowler Nation. “It just turned into a great opportunity to can up beer to go,” Rudolf says. “We provide the machines, the cans and labels, service and support. Folks can get any number of cans they want with any style of decorating on them.”

Crowlers machines run $3,000-6,000 through Crowler Nation and the cans go for 60 cents to $1 each. Other companies offer Crowler-like machines and packages, though Rudolf notes that “some are well-made, and others we do not support.” The cans come in several styles, including a refillable model and some that are fully decorated, and investing in a machine often soon leads to added income for brewers who do not otherwise package their beers.

“Instead of looking at it as an expense, if you sell 10 cans a day, in six to eight weeks it pays for itself,” Rudolf says. “It’s an extremely portable and very sustainable package — and responsible, if you recycle it.”

Choosing sides

Highland Brewing Co., Asheville’s oldest brewery, has solely offered the Crowler for its on-demand to-go beer. “We wanted to avoid folks bringing in glass growlers that we had to clean,” says company President Leah Wong Ashburn. “We just want to give out a fresh, clean product to everyone, every time. They’re really popular with our pilot brews because we don’t package them.”

Fermented Nonsense Brewing at the Craft Centric beer store in Arden also went exclusively with the Crowler.”You can take the cans more places,” says shop owner Matt Vaughan. “And for consumers, it’s more affordable. You don’t have to purchase a glass growler. You might wind up having 20 growlers at home.”

Wedge Brewing Co. is also among the converts. The brewery started off with glass growlers, but owner Tim Schaller has since ditched them in favor of the Crowler. “I thought that with growlers, they would be [reused], but the reality is that you just keep buying them,” he says. “They don’t really come back [to the brewery]. And if they came back, they wouldn’t be clean, so we had to clean them.”

Other businesses still prefer glass, such as French Broad River Brewery. “Some people have fancy stainless steel growlers,” says head brewer Aaron Wilson. “We’ll fill any growler that’s out there.” He adds that growlers are easier for bartenders to fill and sell.

Asheville Brewing Co. also uses glass exclusively. Company President Mike Rangel says his customers are good about returning growlers for refills, but notes that he may eventually add the Crowler. Meanwhile, Bhramari Brewing Co. is one of a few local breweries that uses both glass and aluminum.

“I prefer the cans because their shelf life is a little longer,” says Bhramari brewer and co-owner Gary Sernack. “We do both now because we had a bunch of growlers when we ordered our Crowler machine, but we’re starting to phase out the 32-ounce growlers. We’ll offer the 64-ounce glass [growlers] and then 32-ounce [Crowlers].”

Green Man Brewery takes a similar approach. On its tours, the brewery gives participants an empty glass growler, depending on their availability. But when it comes to purchasing beer to take home, marketing assistant Jeremy Feingold reveals that an increasing number of visitors are going the canned route.

“Crowlers are extremely convenient for consumers as the beer stays fresh longer, and there is no light penetration,” he says. “I think the plan is to eventually no longer sell the the growlers, but we will always gladly fill them.”

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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