From gas station convenience stores to supermarkets, crowlers—32-ounce, growler-style cans—are helping fuel retail craft beer sales nationwide. Created in 2013 at the Oskar Blues Brewery tasting room in Longmont, Colorado, the phenomenon has grown into a nationwide business called Crowler Nation. “We were born in a brewery,” says Crowler Nation founder Jeremy Rudolf. “We dig beer. We dig cans.”
Rudolf, former packing manager for Oskar Blues Brewery, conceived of the crowler at the Edmund F. Ball Technology & Innovation Center in Westminster, Colorado, when he saw old machinery for home canning and lid sealing. “We were allowed to take one of the machines and bring it into the Oskar Blues tasting room,” Rudolf says. The machine was then modified to mechanically seal the lids on 32-ounce cans, freshly filled with beer. “After other breweries came through the tasting room, they were excited about it and wanted to know where we got our stuff,” Rudolf adds. “The format spun off into its own entity.”
Rudolf founded Crowler Nation in 2015. The company now has seven employees and contracts with ten warehouses nationwide to handle can sleeving, labeling, and shipping. Recent developments in crowlers include customized powder-coated, colorized machines; customized labels; a 24-hour support line; and cans with re-sealable caps made by Dayton Systems Group.
Can manufacturer Ball Corp. owns the crowler trademark and makes the cans. Wisconsin-based All American produces the aluminum bar-top seamer that seals lids onto cans. Crowler Nation is the distribution arm. Athens, Georgia-based Dixie Canner & Co. also sells can seamers for crowlers, and is the only other automated machine that Crowler Nation supports. “Other machines that use manual orientation or require you to pull on levers could potentially not fully seal the can,” Rudolf explains.
Efficiency is the driving force behind crowler growth. A can is easier to fill than a glass bottle and saves beer, time, and money. “Glass holds heat,” Rudolf explains. “Beer is 35 degrees when it’s poured into a 60-70 degree glass growler, and it immediately starts losing carbonation and foaming out of the tight neck at the top.” In contrast, crowlers offer a no-loss sealing method. “The can is a conductor and immediately turns cold,” Rudolf says. “You fill the beer right up to the top, put a lid on it, and seal it. You’re not standing there wasting beer.”
Rudolf says retail crowlers began in Arizona about six years ago, due in large part to the insistence of Germain Coquet, a pioneer of the crowler movement. Coquet, then the specialty store team leader at the Chandler, Arizona Whole Food markets, insisted the store buy the machine from Oskar Blues—which originally sold the machines—and start selling crowlers. “Our Whole Foods Market Chandler store was the first in Arizona to sell growlers and had a very successful launch, so when we heard about crowlers it was a no-brainer to bring them in,” says Coquet, now the associate store team leader at the store. “Customers love taking home fresh-from-the-tap, unique beers that are brewed in small batches and released in kegs only.” Crowlers are now being sold at Whole Foods stores in Arizona, Nevada, and Destin, Florida, as well as at two Whole Foods locations that also house in-store breweries—one in San Jose, California and one in Houston Texas.
In Miami, Florida, Mendez Fuel has fully embraced the crowler. When Andrew Mendez, vice president of operations, hooked up eight craft beer taps for growler sales in the convenience store of his family’s gas station in May 2014, he didn’t know about crowlers, but he knew craft beer would attract business. “We noticed how many people started coming in,” Mendez says. “We put in another eight taps. People are always surprised when they see the taps at a gas station, and our beer selection.”
Mendez first saw a crowler machine while visiting Cigar City Brewing in Tampa in 2014. “By the end of September that year we had the crowler system,” Mendez says. “We were the first retailer to put in a crowler machine in Miami, and it has really made a difference—it gave us another edge.”
Crowlers now outsell growler sales at Mendez Fuels. Craft beers are rotated at the store, but the best-sellers are Civil Society Fresh IPA ($14 a 32-ounce crowler), M.I.A. Beer Co.’s Tremenda Tipa sour beer ($13), and The Tank Brewing Co.’s La Finca Miami wheat saison ($9). “If I had to start all over, I would just stick to crowlers,” Mendez says.
Mendez recently introduced eight craft beer taps at another one of his family’s four convenience stores in Miami. He’s also preparing to unveil a new crowler label created by local artist Vic Garcia. “I can see the uptick already with people coming for the crowler and the other packaged beer,” he says. “The crowler is not going away. It’s beneficial to our business.”
Crowlers are now making their way into the international market as well. Rudolf says the crowler export market is growing in Mexico and Canada, and Crowler Nation recently received approval from the European Union to sell crowler machines to its members. “Since it’s such an easy thing to fill, it’s really catching on,” he says. “There’s going to be a huge surge. There are so many breweries making so many fantastic beers.”