The after-work crowd filters into the industrial confines of the bar inside Thirsty Dog Brewery in Akron. Patrons step aside as a forklift backs through the narrow hallway, carrying a pallet of kegs to the other side of the facility in East Akron.
It’s Thursday, and the beer is on sale.
Two men sit at the end of the bar. Damian Menning, 23, of Cuyahoga Falls, and Erik Ryberg, 45, of Kent, both engineers, each with a pint of beer and a 64-ounce jug set before them. They come to Thirsty Thursdays every week.
“It’s an excuse to get out on Thursday with the guys from work,” says Ryberg, “and then have some beer for the weekend.”
Thirsty Thursdays is a weekly promotional event at Thirsty Dog where customers can buy jugs of draft beer — called growlers — at a discount. Most beers cost $8 for a fill, with some specialty brews between $10 and $15. Normally, growler fills range from $10 to $25.
Buying growlers is a burgeoning trend in to-go beer in the Greater Akron area. Aside from the many breweries in Northeast Ohio that sell draft beer to go, local grocery stores and certain bars have also gotten into the act.
The discerning beer enthusiast can visit these tap stands, which usually feature three or more brews, and fill up a growler of their choice at prices ranging from $6 to $30 for more specialty brews. Most establishments will fill up any clean, 64-ounce, sealable glass jug, but branded growlers typically cost between $3.99 and $5.
A full growler provides the same amount of beer as five 12-ounce bottles (actually, it’s more like 5.3 bottles), so you’re getting a bit less than a six-pack. But the upshot is getting that draft taste.
“You can take the freshness home with you,” Menning says. “It’s a different experience than bottles.”
Growlers are particularly popular in Northeast Ohio, says John Najeway, partner and co-owner of Thirsty Dog. “It’s amazing,” he says. “I was in Cincinnati and Columbus recently, and growlers are virtually nonexistent there except in the breweries.”
So why are they trending here? “Northeast Ohio is saturated with great breweries,” Najeway says. “There are 60 licensed breweries right now in Ohio, and more than half of those are in Northeast Ohio. … There’s just an appreciation for it here. It used be that we were trying to convert people from drinking fuzzy yellow beer, but now you have people growing up with nothing but craft beer.”
You can also buy most of Ohio Brewing Co.’s beers in growlers — $15 to buy and fill; $10 refills; some seasonal beers are more. “We’ll also fill your growler for $11 with our regular beers — but I know you want an OBC one!” says owner Chris Verich, adding that the brewery is open for growler fills by appointment, so call ahead.
Where you won’t be rushing the growling: Hoppin’ Frog — since they don’t sell keg beer.
Milk, Bread and Beer
While growlers sales have long been a staple for breweries, grocery stores have emerged as popular venues for a fill. In the last year, growler stations have opened at three Acme Fresh Market locations, West Point Market and Buehler’s in Medina.
Growlers originated in the 1800s in the form of lidded metal pails. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first usage of the term as a vessel for beer in 1888. Back then, factory hands would hire boys to fetch beer for them. The pails became known as growlers because of the sound lids made as carbon dioxide escaped from the beer. As the boys would ferry the beer to the factory workers, they were said to be “rushing the growler,” a phrase that later came to refer to drinking freely.
This coming year, growlers may become even more popular, thanks to a law passed by the Ohio Legislature in December 2011. House Bill 243 will allow retail stores with a D-8 liquor license to sell growlers. With the law in effect, Acme already has plans to expand its growler program.
“We have a few locations in mind — Montrose, Hudson, Kent and maybe on the east side of Akron,” says Jon Albrecht, category manager at Acme in charge of the beer and wine department. “I don’t know if it will be every single store, but we want to strike while the iron’s hot. The fad is extremely popular now.”
Prior to passage of the new state law, retailers with a D-8 license could only sell beer and wine in its original containers. Therefore, if a store had a keg, the beer could only be sold by the keg and not in a take-away container. The store would need an additional license to sell growlers.
Acme has established growler stands at its stores on Bailey Road in Cuyahoga Falls, on Manchester Road in South Akron and in North Canton. Each store features six taps that rotate weekly.
“It’s the world we live in,” says Albrecht, about the role the economy is playing in the recent uptick in growler popularity. “People are spending more and more time cooking and entertaining at home. The growler gives them a fun vessel to bring home beer or take it to a party and talk about it. They can get great draft beer way cheaper than at their corner spot.”
Other growler venues can be found in Kent at 101 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, Riverside Wine and Beer, and Ray’s Place. And these are just local options.
Specials on Tap
Providing beer in growlers has inspired grocers to put unique offerings on draft to augment traditional beer sales — all “part of the fun,” according to Brian Berg, beer department manager at West Point Market, which keeps four beers on tap. “We don’t really have a specific science to how we pick beers. We tend to get beer that’s only available on draft, special one-offs or special limited beers that aren’t in six-packs. The beers we try to bring in are unique and rare.”
The same is true for Thirsty Dog, with its 12 beers on tap that aren’t all are available in stores or bottles. In that case, the only option aside from a keg is a growler. “If you want to get something fresh and new, you can get it in a growler,” says Najeway. “It’s also good for people that are having a party. They can get a couple growlers or use them to taste different beers before making the commitment to buy a keg.”
Growler stands have also prompted grocery stores to host special tasting events. Both Acme and West Point Market are planning to incorporate more events to promote their draft beer selection, with costs ranging $25 to $30, including beer samples and food pairings.
Everyone knows that beer only lasts as long as it takes to drink it, but growlers have a short shelf life. It is, after all, draft beer.
“Growlers are good for about five to six days unopened,” says Albrecht. “Once opened, it depends on how much you drink that first session. It’s kind of like a two-liter of pop. If you drink a lot, it will go flat quicker. If you just have a glass, it should be good for another few days.”
But with so many different options available to try, there’s no reason to let your beer go flat. Rush that growler and enjoy.
“Like” Your Local Growler Stand
In the age of social media, it’s no surprise that your local growler station probably has its own Facebook page and Twitter account. Acme has one of the more active fan pages for its wine and beer department, with category manager Jon Albrecht himself often updating the beers on tap at each location and polling customers about which beers they’d like to see in stores.
“Facebook has been a neat part of the whole thing,” says Albrecht. “It started as the wine and beer department page, but it has turned into a live bar and tap list. We have about 600 people on the page, and … we want to get the message to them about what’s available and hear their response. The people on our fan page know a heck of lot more about beer than I do.
“It gives customers a direct way to talk to the decision-maker, and that’s me,” Albrecht adds. “When someone asks for an item they drank on vacation and I can tell them it’ll be at the store Friday at 3 for the weekend, that makes an impact.”
Buehler’s and West Point Market also have a strong Facebook presence, posting the revolving beers on tap and prices for a fill.