Monday, September 27, 2010

Getting into the growler game

Four-packs, sixpacks, bomber bottles, 12-ounce singles and now growlers.

These days, the yardstick by which you judge a great package store that's big into craft beer may not just be a selection of brews as wide as the US. It may include whether the establishment has a state license to fill jugs with take-home draft beer.

For a long time in the New Jersey craft beer scene, filling growlers has been the province of the dozen brewpubs spread across the state and a couple of production breweries (High Point in Butler and Cricket Hill in Fairfield) that offer them as an option to the two sixpack maximum allowed for retail sale at breweries.

One one brewery, Climax in Roselle Park, bottles exclusively in the half-gallon containers, using a filler system that founder Dave Hoffmann, a former machinist, built himself.

But nowadays some of the big discounter package goods stores in the Garden State are tapping into the market, capitalizing on a thirst for draft beer from Jersey brewers and craft brewers whose labels are hot tickets among beer enthusiasts.

Count the two Joe Canal's Discount Liquor Outlets on Route 1 in Islen (Woodbridge) and Lawrenceville among those establishments with taps dispensing take-home draft in proprietary growling-bulldog-monogrammed glass. Refill prices range from about a fin to 16 bucks depending on the brand of beer.

"We started in the Lawrenceville store at the end of June, and end of July over here," Michael Brenner, the stores' general manager, said last week. "We do a decent business."

(You'll find growler stations at other independently owned Joe Canal's in South Jersey, i.e. West Deptford.)

"Craft and microbrews are popular to begin with. They're getting more so," Brenner says. "There's as much interest in the different styles and regions where they come from, as we see in the wines. Folks are talking about it; they're exchanging notes, and it's a lot of fun."

Brenner says patrons are able to keep up with what's available from the taps by signing up with the stores' email notification program. The two stores, which also sell koozies to keep the jugs cold, have even scored some choice, hard-to-get brews for growler fills. "We had (Founders) Kentucky Breakfast Stout. We had a sixtel in both locations," Brenner says.

The beer sold out lightning quick. "It was great; it got a lot of people talking" Brenner says.

To help drive sales, store crews sold the empty jugs at a recent craft beer festival in Trenton. A Princeton marketing firm created the logo that's emblazoned on the brown glass.

"We think that this is such an interesting and unusual thing that you don't see every day that we wanted to brand it separately," Brenner says.

Besides hot-ticket crafts, the stores also put on some of more familiar brands, like Samuel Adams Summer Ale and Blue Moon, Brenner says, "because we want this to be accessible for everybody."

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