Carolina Beer Guy: Growler refills not easy during COVID-19 pandemic

A CAP ON CONVENIENCE: Many Asheville-area beer businesses have stopped refilling customers’ to-go containers. Douglas Corkhill, pictured, has had trouble getting a refill for his beloved Yeti growler. Photo courtesy of Corkhill

Got an empty growler? In the age of COVID-19, getting it refilled isn’t as easy as it once was.

A staple of the craft beer scene for years, the returnable, reusable glass containers — typically in 32- and 64-ounce sizes — have become favorites with many brew fans. They’re an easy way to take a beer home and keep it in the refrigerator for a few days.

Most breweries offer them for sale, as do stores and shops with tap lines. And many beer drinkers have their own growlers that they bring to these alcoholic beverage businesses.

But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult to return the vessels. Some Asheville-area breweries and shops have put the brakes on accepting growlers from customers out of concerns that the bottles could spread the virus. With the process coming to a sudden standstill, it raises the question of what to do with them when the beer is gone.

Ballad of an empty Yeti

Former Asheville resident Douglas Corkhill recently ran into this problem when he made the hour drive from his Whittier home to Buncombe County and brought along his empty 2-quart Yeti growler, which he says “will keep the beer cold almost forever.”

“We went to Whole Foods on Tunnel Road. I’ve filled growlers there in the past,” Corkhill says. Prior to making the visit, he checked online to be certain growler fills were still being offered. But once at the store, he learned that outside bottles were no longer being accepted.

“I was perturbed,” he says. “I don’t deny COVID. I practice social distancing. I wear a mask, try to be safe. I just don’t see how filling a growler is COVID-preventative. Couldn’t they wear gloves or spray it like they do a counter top?”

While Whole Foods is not accepting growlers for refill, the stores are selling plastic growlers to go that are filled on demand. Uninterested in that option, Corkhill also checked at the Brew Pump in West Asheville, where his request was likewise denied.

Xpress emailed and left voicemails for Buncombe County Health and Human Services representatives, seeking comments on the efficacy of these safety protocols, but received no reply.

The quest continues

Had Corkhill gone to The Casual Pint in South Asheville, he’d have been in luck. “We will sanitize it, clean it and fill it,” says store owner Brad Rogers. The taproom/beer store currently has 30 taps for filling growlers, as well as crowlers — the 32-ounce aluminum version of the growler that’s simply recycled by the customer once the beer is gone — which outsell growlers. “But you have some dedicated growler people,” he says.

Nearly as good is the policy at Wicked Weed Brewing, which — according to spokesman Kyle Pedersen — allows for accepting used growlers that are then swapped out for beer in a freshly cleaned bottle. Wicked Weed also offers on-demand crowlers. Elsewhere, however, it’s increasingly likely that customers’ growlers will remain untouched by employees.

Tacos and Taps continues to sell both tacos and draft beer to go, and until COVID-19 began to lash the region in March, the drive-thru business would gladly accept growlers for reuse, says co-owner Mike Rangel, who also is president of Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. But the pandemic has required a shift in operations, and Rangel is no longer taking the growlers back. “We feel it’s unsafe to have so much contact with the growler and customer,” he says.

However, both of his businesses continue to offer fresh growlers filled with beer, as well as crowlers. Wedge Brewing Co. owner Tim Schaller is also a fan of crowlers, which he considers “a better product” than glass growlers, which he feels leads “to a whole lot of waste.” Wedge shifted to crowlers prior to the pandemic and no longer sells or refills growlers.

Hi-Wire Brewing is likewise not accepting used growlers, though the brewery still fills its own fresh growlers. “We were concerned about cross-contamination,” says director of taprooms Christine Ferguson Weaver. It’s the same story at UpCountry Brewing Co., which additionally offers the recyclable crowler. “For now, we’re being a little cautious,” says owner John Cochran.


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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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