On Tap: On the Prowl for Growlers in Vermont

The ruby colored beer in my glass still carried an herbal hop bouquet and peppery bite, tasting as though it had been poured from a tap in the next room. But here I was, drinking a pint of Lost Nation’s Rustic Ale, in my living room. The sticky lacing clung to a glass from my cupboard. And at least three more pints were left to chill in my refrigerator.

What makes this remarkable is that Lost Nation doesn’t bottle its beer. I’ve never seen its products served outside a festival and some tap rooms. I suppose I could always pick some up at the brewery, but Morrisville, Vt., is a bit of a hike from the Upper Valley.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t need to drive out of the Upper Valley to buy this beer, fresh as though it were brewed yesterday. This is the advantage of the growler.

For those who don’t know, growlers are 64 ounce containers of draft beer that you can buy and take home. Breweries around the Twin States have been selling growlers for a while, but only recently have third-party retailers in Vermont been able to get in on this. And the result is that many difficult-to-find beers sold only on draft are now easier to find close to home.

A change in Vermont law several years ago freed up places like Woodstock Hops & Barley and the Co-op Food Store in White River Junction to sell growlers.

There are a lot of advantages for consumers, said Matt Markwell, Woodstock’s store manager. The first is flavor.

“Good beer is all about having fresh beer,” Markwell told me recently.

The beer is delivered to in kegs to retailers, which tap them to fill the growlers. The kegs are kept cold and are not exposed to rapid temperature fluctuations and sunlight — both bad things for beer.

Then there is the cost. Once you get past the bottle deposit for the growler (often around $5), the price can be a bit less for the same beer. Founder’s Breakfast Stout, for example, sells for as much as $15 per 4-pack. A growler at Woodstock costs $14. Then there are the environmental benefits of using a refillable container rather than buying and tossing out multiple bottles.

All of these are good reasons. But what excites me most is that growler programs are good for the small independent brewers, bringing a bit of democracy to the beer aisle. Start-up operations without the money for expensive bottling equipment can keep selling draft-only beer and still have visibility alongside larger competitors in retail stores.

Suddenly, I can taste the latest offerings from Lost Nation, Burlington’s Zero Gravity and Stowe’s Trapp Lager Brewery, none of which are widely available in bottles but all of which Markwell had on tap in the past week.

Expanding access to new beers is one reason why Dave Phillips started the growler program at the Co-op Food Store in White River Junction.

“We’re hoping it will give people opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have unless they went to a bar,” Phillips said.

The Co-op began selling growlers just before New Year’s and has steadily ramped up its program. Currently, the store taps new kegs every Thursday afternoon.

When I visited recently, Phillips had just tapped a keg of an Imperial IPA from Lagunitas and mentioned a couple of others — Green Flash’s Palate Wrecker, Victory Hop Ranch — that he planned to bring in soon.

There are, of course, drawbacks to growler programs. The first is that you should plan on finishing that beer within a few days. Yes, it will go stale.

Also, each retailer has its own style of container and cannot accept one from another store . If you buy a growler from the Co-op, don’t try to get it refilled in Woodstock. This is Vermont law. So unless you want a bunch of different empty jugs sitting around in your cellar that can only be filled one place in the state, consider carefully where you plan to be a repeat customer.

New Hampshire residents don’t have this option. Brewers can sell growlers, but retailers aren’t allowed to have them unless they are pre-filled by the brewers themselves. However, there’s a bill in the state Senate that would change this.

It likely would be a good thing for New Hampshire’s blossoming beer industry, which like Vermont ’s, is expanding in number through tiny start-up “nano breweries,” not all of which bottle and might sell draft-only.

I can’t always visit the brewery or get to a pub. But if I could buy a growler of some small brewer’s pilsner or porter just as easily as a six-pack from Sam Adams, then I’ve got a much more fun choice to make .

V alley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.