23 Apr New Order Lets Growler USA in Jeffersonville Fill Growlers for the First Time, But What About After Coronavirus?
The current shutdown of restaurants/bars, brewery taprooms, and retail has led to some interesting workarounds in order to make an attempt at survival. You can do your part to help hometown businesses make it through this trying time by buying local whenever possible. Order carryout from your local family restaurant rather than from that big chain restaurant. The big boys will be fine after this, they’ve got cash reserves, but your order of wings on a Wednesday evening could keep a local place alive. Plus, then you get to tip big to help the laid off workers.
Carryout is something that many breweries, brewpubs, and bars have turned to now. Some breweries have packaged beer to sell at curbside or from a window or rail. Some have crowlers machines that are getting quite the work out right now, while many rely on growler and howler fills to hang on. This near instantaneous switch of business models has put stress on the aluminum can suppliers and the glass growler manufacturers. In many instances, breweries have had their growlers or crowler cans back ordered for weeks.
You can add to this the addition of many outlets now filling growlers who could not do it before. Indiana has a law that says only producers can fill growlers (whether they be new or used), but Governor Holcomb issued an order a month ago that allows bars and restaurants that sell draft beer to fill growlers (and to sell package if they did so beforehand). The order also allows sale of package liquor, but let’s focus on growlers for now.
The ability of these additional outlets to fill growlers has added to the strain on the supply side of the industry. The amount of alcohol being drunk during the shutdown is staggering, so there are a lot of people filling growlers that haven’t ever bought beer this way before. You may be a big craft fan, but not everybody has a growler/howler collection like you do. One place that has been adjusting to this new arrangement is Growler USA – Jeffersonville (3010 Gottbrath Parkway).
Husband and wife team Greg and Laura Brown opened this Growler USA franchise in late 2018. It’s a large, but locally owned, bar and restaurant that caters to beer fans of all levels. The Browns have recently transitioned away from the corporate partnership and will soon be re-opening under their family-owned flag of Harbor and Hops Restaurant and Taphouse. Just before the mandated shutdown, the Brown’s were ready to begin a series of brewer/brewery dinners designed to bring the craft beer fans into closer contact with the people that supply the beers they love.
But as is the way of things, they had to quickly try and find a way to keep their business afloat. When the shutdown first fell on us, his bar was basically shut out of the market. They could sell food by carryout, but all their draft and package beer just had to sit there, getting older and going bad. Greg told me, “I think like everyone else we are and have adapted as quickly as we could. We had to try some different hours that seemed to align with our customers. In the end, 4-8pm seemed to do the trick. Unfortunately we did lay everyone off from the outset. We only were able to bring back three employees part time. We have been managing the pub with myself, brother and volunteer daughters (Sabrina and Sheridan) on the weekend.”
They may have gotten a late start in selling, but they have found a receptive audience for both their carryout food and to-go beer. Brad was happy to note, “Fortunately we have a loyal following of regulars and a generous community. We have received a lot of support. The filling of growlers has been a lifeline that I will hate to lose. As a going concern our food/alcohol sales split has always been 70% food. That has changed to 50/50. It is a huge boost in what is very small revenue. I would like to think that when open back to full service that we would learn that this is not an anomaly.”
Governor Holcomb’s order allowing growler and package sales breaks tradition for Indiana, where only producers have had this privilege up to now. It’s a fairly large change in Indiana protocol, which has ramifications for bars, restaurants, as well as for breweries. Greg explained, “Beer-to-go, like any retail beer sales is in new containers for off premise consumption. My liquor license is a retail license like everyone else’s. There is a note included on them that authorizes beer to go or not. We have come up with new PET 64 oz. containers that have a tamper evident cap when sealed. This so far has constituted a beer to go and not a growler fill.” This means that technically there are two ways for these retailers to sell beer for carryout, in sealed containers like a crowler (beer-to-go), as well as doing on demand new growler fills.
The growler supply issue is now just one more problem with which Greg and Growler USA has had to deal. Greg mentioned to me, “Keeping beer and growlers has not been to difficult but you do need to plan ahead. The other tap houses and breweries have been very helpful to each other. Sun King has been delivering their growlers to all of us at their cost to help out. I ran short and Rick Otey at Donum Dei Brewstillery spotted me some of his. Pearl Street Taphouse has borrowed some from me and then paid me back in growlers when I was running thin. North Vernon Beverage came up with a great deal on PET growlers and ordered for all of us at cost. Just today I received a cache of them and am handing some off to the guys at Hoopsters in Jeffersonville. You just have to help each other out and no one has to get left behind.”
So places like Growler USA, Hop Station Craft Bar in Mishawaka, Ted’s Beer Hall in Fort Wayne, Gerst Haus in Evansville and others are now doing growler fills for carryout – new for Indiana, but commonplace in surrounding states. Kentucky has allowed retail growler fills since 2014, and Ohio has had the law since before that. Illinois adopted a two-growler fill limit in 2019. Michigan let some retailers fill growlers (depending on their permit) in 2018, so Indiana is kind of on an island when it comes to limiting growler filling to producers. Is that good or bad?
Well… it probably depends on to whom you are talking. Should the growler fill order be extended or legislated into law after the shutdown is over? Once again, opinions vary. I spoke to Rob Caputo, Executive Director of the Brewers of Indiana Guild about this subject, from the aspect of the past, the current state, and in the future. He said, “As for growler filling at non brewery locations, this is not something that just popped up on our radar. Non brewery retailers have been discussing pushing this sort of legislation for many years, and we have surveyed our membership on this topic on multiple occasions.”
He explained that the surveys have shown that opinions vary from brewery to brewery, “There is a bit of a split based on brewery size and type as to what their feelings are on this topic. The last time we surveyed this topic in 2018 there was close to a 50/50 split from those responding as to whether or not they supported the practice of filling growlers at non brewery retail locations. The larger breweries were very much in favor of it, while many of our smaller members were vehemently opposed.”
However, the guild’s surveys didn’t simply ask for a thumbs up or down on the matter, they also asked about possible limits and issues that should be addressed and that might alter a certain brewery’s overall feeling. Rob said, “One of the big push backs from some of our members was related to draft line cleaning. Those comments were related to strict requirements for line cleaning, and my personal take on that topic is ‘be careful what you ask for.’”
There are several things that breweries and retailers would need to consider before coming together to develop a plan to move forward (or move back, as the case may be). Those things might include: 1) changing the way retailers do business will undoubtedly change the way breweries will conduct sales, marketing and production; 2) will breweries benefit from these sales at a lower profit margin (they have to pay the distributor), or will they cause a diminishing of sales in the taproom; 3) will retail locations that don’t serve draft now be allowed to get a draft permit – one of our favorite places to buy draft beer and get fills in Ohio is a Marathon gas station; and 4) will retail outlets present beer and talk beer in the way a brewer would wish.
Rob pointed out how some of these issues are fairly complex. Would breweries be able to match retailers in terms of line cleaning? Likewise, expanding sales isn’t always a boon for producers. Rob noted, “The increased availability and visibility of local Indiana brewed products would be a good thing in my estimation. That said, the second way to view this would be that the possible outcome is similar to the impact of the Sunday sales law on our brewery members. Many of them took large volume and financial hits to their Sunday sales when the law went into effect. I could see this creating a similar impact spread over the course of a sales week, although it might be more subtle.”
On which side of the issue, limiting growler fills to breweries or expanding them to retailers, the guild will side as a representative of the breweries is unclear right now. As we alluded to above, some breweries have already voiced extreme concern over this practice even in the short term, while others welcome the chance to distribute beer for growler fills at restaurants and other places. Rob did note, “Our membership has good number of very small breweries who might be heavily impacted by any change to the allowances for growler filling. We never like to give away things that are exclusive and beneficial to our membership and the brewing industry.”
Greg Brown from Growler USA has his own take on the Indiana laws going forward. “I am hopeful that when the black flag finally lowers and we return to SOP we will be able to at least have a discussion about this at the state level. The huge increase in revenue results in a increase in tax I pay. We are all going to be climbing out of a big economic hole. Lessening tax and revenue programs does not seem prudent. As for my opinion about the whole thing: I would gladly forgo ‘Growler Fills’ in exchange for ‘Beer-to-Go.’ It is what my customers are asking for and we can do it within the confines of present regulations.”