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Beer: Something to growl about

David Dwyer, bartender at Tuscarora Mill, presents a growler. (Mouncey Ferguson)

A growler, in the pre-Prohibition era, was a metal pail that drinkers toted to their local watering hole to fill with beer. In an age when bottles were scarce and expensive, and canned beer unknown, it was the working man’s only option for takeout. According to one etymology, it got its name because the hissing and crackling of the escaping CO2 resembled a guttural growl.

Some growlers are fancier than others.

Today’s growler is a glass jug that can be rinsed and reused indefinitely, making it the eco-friendliest of beer receptacles. Some resemble hillbilly moonshine jugs with screw caps. The Sweetwater Tavern brewpub chain in northern Virginia uses fancy German-made, two-liter containers with swing-top stoppers. The growlers, if refrigerated, will keep for several weeks, insists head brewer Nick Funnell, although once opened “they are only good for a day or so as they start to go flat.”

Growlers are usually associated with brewpubs, but Virginia law allows restaurants and grocery store chains to fill the glass jugs for takeout. The Whole Foods Market Fair Lakes store in Fairfax began filling growlers on Thursday, Feb. 25, and sold nearly 100 of the containers the first week, according to the store’s wine buyer, Walter Martley.

The half-gallon containers are available at three restaurants inside the store: the Sea Shak, the Smokehouse and the Cheese Grill. The selection of 10 beers will change constantly, but last week included Troegs Nugget Nectar, Terrapin Big Hoppy Monster, Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout and He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A. The containers themselves cost $3.50, and pours range from $9.99 to $19.99.

Whole Foods isn’t the first outlet in the Old Dominion to take advantage of a 2005 tweak in the law that allows non-brewpubs to sell growlers as long as they have both an on-premise and off-premise license to sell alcoholic beverages.

Tuscarora Mill in Leesburg and its sister restaurant, Magnolias at the Mill in Purcellville, will both fill a jug from the taps.

Shawn Malone, a partner in both restaurants, said the big problem with restaurant sales of growlers is the higher markup. Brewpubs make their own beer, eliminating the middleman, and can offer their suds more cheaply. At the Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington, for instance, you can get a 64-ounce fill-up of one of their basic house beers like Mother Martha’s Kolsch or Ballston Brown for $7.62. By contrast, a similar-sized growler at Tuskie’s costs between $17 (for Flying Dog Pale Ale) and $21 (for geekier selections like Oskar Blues Gordon and Blue Point Rastafar Rye).

“They haven’t been a big success, but I think they will catch on,” adds Malone, who will offer growlers at the company's second Fire Works Pizza, a 36-tap restaurant set to open by the beginning of June in the Court House neighborhood of Arlington.

Unlike some outlets, Malone’s restaurants (Whole Foods, too) will fill other establishments’ growlers, slapping an adhesive label over the original lettering.

Not all states are growler-friendly. They’re illegal in the District of Columbia. Maryland allows brewpubs to sell the refillable jugs, but clamped down when State Line Liquors in Elkton began offering growlers in 2007. “We were doing really well, filling a couple hundred a week,” said Robert Murray, co-owner of the specialty liquor mart with onsite tasting room. State officials cited a clause in the Maryland alcohol code forbidding bar owners from refilling empty bottles. The purpose of that restriction, says Murray, was to prevent publicans from cheating customers by pouring cheap booze into packages for more expensive brands. He insists he always filled growlers in front of the customers so they knew exactly what they were getting.

“They told me the only way I could do growlers was if I got a brewpub license,” Murray said.

However, Maryland’s DuClaw Brewing Co., with branches in Bel Air, Arundel Mills, Bowie and BWI Airport, continues to fill growlers, although all DuClaw beers are brewed off site at a facility in Abingdon. According to Kristin Tipton, restaurant manager at the Bel Air site, the containers cost $14, and 64-ounce pours from the tap cost between $7.49 and $9. She estimates the Bel Air restaurant sells 30 to 40 new growlers a week, and refills 200 to 300.

“We’ve never had an issue,” she adds.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  March 8, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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In addition to the above establishments, I know that Vintage 50 in Leesburg, CapCity in Arlington, and Shenandoah in Alexandria will fill all growlers. Maybe we can convince Wegmans to start the practice. However, the one that is REALLY missed in Old Dominion - RIP. Colin Harding, Fairfax Station, VA

Posted by: colinhrdng | March 9, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I've got 4 of the German, wide-mouth growlers that I've acquired over the years. They're great for taking homebrew to parties and tailgates, assuming the 1/2 gallon will be consumed at one time.

Someone gave me one of the narrow-mouthed growlers pictured above, but I don't like the idea of it (or the look). It's really difficult to get a good pour from a 6 pound bottle (4 lb of beer plus the glass) with a mouth about the same size as a 12 oz bottle.

Thanks for the run-down on who's selling growlers, Greg. I appreciate having the info in one place. I also appreciate that you included prices.

Posted by: DrBeaker | March 9, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

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