Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Growler Math

How ridiculous is it that there are no longer returnable beer bottles? (Or pop bottles, for that matter.) In this day and age where we're worried about energy and the environment, every bottle of beer you drink is manufactured for a single use, then -- best case -- crushed into dust; worst case, tossed in a landfill.

Two-quart growlers provide you, the eco-friendly Portlander, a way to reuse a bottle, instead of sending it off to be melted and made into a different bottle. Plus you get some good, fresh local beer.

But there's a catch: in general, you get to pay more for the privilege of not using a bottle. For example, the new Deschutes pub in Portland charges $15 for a 64-ounce growler fill, about 23 cents an ounce, quite a premium over the price of a 72-ounce six-pack. Given that good Oregon beers are selling for something like $7-$9 a six-pack -- even good beers from out-of-state are in the same range -- the bottle price is somewhere between 10 and 13 cents an ounce.

Granted, $15 is on the high end of growler prices. But even the more usual price of $11 is about 17 cents an ounce. Why does it cost less to buy a six-pack, with a cut going to middlemen in the form of distributors and retailers, than to buy unpackaged beer directly from the producer?

[Update 2008/08/17]: Lindsey points out that it's confusing to talk about the price per ounce. Instead, consider that a growler holds eight-ninths the volume of a six-pack. So if you would pay $9 a six-pack, you should get a growler filled for no more than $8. An $8 six-pack equates with a $7.10 growler; $7 with $6.20. And that gives the brewer all the extra margin that used to go to packaging, distribution, and retailing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems to show that growler prices could be even lower and still be a winner for the brewery.

According to the excellent growler index on the Champagne of Blogs, there are some deals to be had: $6.95 at Rock Bottom, or $4.95 at Portland Brewing -- oops, now it's $5.95 according to a comment below. If more places had growler fills that were in that six-pack price range, it would be a big boost to environmentally sound beer-drinking. Maybe it could even be a way to boost pub business: sit down for a pint and get a discount on your growler fill.

By the way, that growler index would be a great thing to put on the Portland Beer Wiki. Pubs open and prices change all the time, so it's just the thing that you want feet on the street to update. I would also be interested in growler prices at non-brewpubs: I think that any bar with a beer license could fill growlers if they wanted to.


  1. So that I could get my head around this properly, I did some more maths.

    A 64 oz. growler holds a little less than 1 six pack (5 1/3 12oz bottles). In my mind $1/bottle is a good deal. With that metric, a $1 12oz bottle costs 8.3 cents per oz. Thus to be as good a deal as the $1 bottle, a growler would have to cost $5.33 to refill. So at $10 a jug, it's twice as expensive as buying a six pack.

    Of course YMMV as to what you could actually get in a bottle and the $6 six pack seems to be a fading memory.

  2. Growlers are $5.95 at Portland Brewing now -- went up with the increase in cost of hops/malt/gas/everything.

  3. Shouldn't the math calculate pint prices instead of bottle prices since you are purchasing the beer from the tap?

  4. Lindsey: I like your approach. Generalizing it, the ounces cost the same if a growler fill costs 8/9 the price of a six-pack.

    Not sure when I last enjoyed a $6 six-pack. $8 six-packs should translate to $7.10; $9 to $8.

    Mind you, that's for the prices to be the same. And that's with packaging, distribution, and retailing cut out of it.

  5. anon-1: Thanks for the update (see, this should be on the beer wiki). Will Portland Brewing fill jugs with other logos? Mason jars?

    anon-2: I've never been in the bar business, but I would think it should be cheaper than the pint price because there's no glassware to wash or tables to wipe. It's faster to fill one jug than 3 or 4 individual pints, and there's less customer interaction. Or am I way off?

  6. Bill,

    I have to agree with Anon1, 1) because you have to factor in the opportunity cost of those pints subtracted from the keg, and 2)(although entirely related) the cost structure is entirely different between restaurant and brewery.

    Breweries that are bottling are usually, not always, doing so at such a high volume that we see the beer/oz prices that you postulate.

    Restaurants that are not brewpubs are buying those kegs at less than retail, but higher than wholesale and certainly not cost. Even brewpubs would have certain costs, labor, rent/depreciation chiefly, that the straight brewery wouldn't have.

    The restaurant/bar established a pint price to recover all of those costs.

    Now, I love this cause, because I've grown so much fonder of draft beer but I look for pubs that price the growler fairly (HH discount price X 4) as a reasonable benchmark.

  7. Patrick:

    Your third paragraph makes sense: a pub that buys kegs requires a certain margin on them; to some extent a brewpub is depending on that margin also.

    What's the usual happy hour price these days, $3? That's an easy target to hit, most places are under $12 per growler. Maybe the lowest is $2.50/20 oz. Tuesdays at Roots. So Roots should charge 3.2x2.5 = $8/growler? I could go for that; I'd buy very few bottles if the pubs near me filled growlers for $8.