Gas station growlers growing in popularity

Gas station growlers growing in popularity

Credit: thegrowlerguys.com

Photo courtesy of The Growler Guys

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by RACHAEL REES The Bulletin

kgw.com

Posted on December 9, 2012 at 3:13 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 10 at 4:45 PM

BEND, Ore. -- Standing at the counter inside the Shell gas station on Bend's east side, Jim Mathiesen contemplated the nearly 30 beers available on tap, trying to decide which one should fill his 64-ounce growler.

Mathiesen, 49, said he's been filling up his growler at The Growler Guys since the beer started flowing. And now, filling his growler between two and five times a week has become a ritual.

It's a cost-effective way to enjoy a variety of craft beers, he said, as he sampled one of the brews.

Mathiesen isn't the only one. On average, The Growler Guys fill nearly 900 growlers per week. Add in those filled by the 15 breweries that provide the service in Central Oregon, and you get nearly 2,700 growlers filled each week.

From an increasing number of growler fills and businesses offering the to-go bottles, to an emerging retail sector for growler accessories, the growler craze is bubbling up in Central Oregon.

To meet the growing growler demand, The Growler Guys owners, Kizer and Kent Couch, plan to branch out beyond the Shell station/convenience store at Northeast 27th Street and U.S. Highway 20 and open a second location on the north side of Bend by February.

The expansion won't stop there, they said.

Kizer Couch, Kent's son, said he hopes to have six, total, in Central Oregon and would like to see The Growler Guys also expand into other parts of the state and even into Boise, Idaho, through franchise and licensing agreements.

In March, The Growler Guys opened a 12-tap growler-fill station within a small portion of the Stop and Go Mini Mart to test out the market, Kizer Couch said. Four months and $65,000 later, The Growler Guys have a 30-tap -- soon to be 34 -- fill station, an assortment of different sizes and styles of bottles, growler accessories like koozies and carriers, as well as other Growler Guys and brewery swag such as T-shirts and hats.

"There was a definite demand for fresh craft to-go," he said. "Craft beer is really growing in popularity. People are getting interested in different tastes and styles of beer."

About half the taps feature local breweries, such as Silver Moon Brewing, Boneyard Beer and GoodLife Brewing Co., Kizer Couch said. There's other beverages besides beer, including hard cider, sangria from Volcano Vineyards, and six additional taps dedicated to kombucha tea.

Depending on the beverage, Kizer Couch said, filling a growler can range from about $7 to more than $20, but averages $9 at The Growler Guys.

"We are going through so much keg beer, we are able to rotate our styles and breweries all the time," he said. "Every time you come in here, you are going to see a new beer you didn't see the day or week before."

Couch said the beer he serves is as fresh as a beer connoisseur can get.

"Keg beer is the best kind of beer because it's coming from the brewery's keg, to our keg, to the tap," he said.

The consumer can also bring home brews that aren't being bottled yet, such as Boneyard's brews or those from small-batch breweries. And, costs are lower because consumers aren't paying for packaging.

But opening a growler-fill station isn't an easy task.

"This takes a lot of space, a lot of energy and money to set up," Kizer Couch said, noting he had about $10,000 worth of growler bottles in the east-Bend store.

Beyond the cost to open it, he said obtaining an additional liquor license from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission for the growler-fill station was a challenge.

"The OLCC didn't know if they wanted to allow this," he said. "We kicked the doors open for other people."

Christie Scott, OLCC public affairs specialist, said The Growler Guys were the first to apply to the agency, and now three Bend businesses have licenses, and four more applications in Central Oregon are pending, Scott said.

Initially, she said, it took the OLCC some time to determine licensing requirements for a growler-fill-station.

"This is a different kind of business model than we're used to," she said.

For consumers to be in compliance with the law, growlers must be out of reach of the driver and passengers when being transported in a vehicle, said Sgt. Don Manning of Deschutes County Sheriff's Office.

Jay Cherry, distributor for Western Beverage, said the Growler Guys are at the forefront.

"They have the biggest volume account for a convenience store in the area," he said.

Cherry said he thinks the region's growing number of craft breweries has fueled the growler popularity.

The growler trend goes beyond Central Oregon, according to Paul Gatza, director for the Boulder-based Brewers Association.

"It feels like the tip of an iceberg to me," he wrote in an email. "It is popping up, but will become a greater trend, now that non-brewery companies are setting up fill stations."

Sunoco, a Philadelphia-based oil company, tested a growler-fill program in a retail store in the East and plans to expand, he said.

In Central Oregon, bars, restaurants and convenience stores have either started filling growlers or plan to in the near future.

On Friday, Empire Car Wash on Bend's north side opened a 29-tap growler fill station, said co-owner Rick Lane.

Andy Polancheck, co-owner of the Broken Top Bottle Shop in Bend, said he hopes to have a three-tap growler-fill station open this week.

He turns away three or four people each day who want growler fills, he said.

"We weren't going to do growlers at first because we have our bottle shop and we like to have people buy bottles instead of growlers to go. But, the demand for growlers is so large, we decided to give it a try," he said.

Beer isn't the only popular beverage getting poured into growlers.

Jamie Danek, co-founder of Bend tea maker Kombucha Mama said 23 locations in Central Oregon fill about 700 growlers per week with Kombucha Mama.

"The amount of growlers this town goes through is astounding," she said, referring to Kombucha Mama fills. "Bend's a beer town, and that's the vehicle of choice to put your stuff in."

Sara Wiener, owner of Sara Bella Upcycled, has tapped into the craze, making growler tote bags out of sustainable material. This holiday season, she said, people are telling Wiener they plan to give growlers in a tote bag as gifts instead of giving wine in a gift bag.

People aren't into growlers just for taste of the beer, she said, it's also because they're reusable.

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