When the pandemic hit last March, Bauhaus Brew Labs had barrels of beer intended for restaurants and bars that needed to be sold or (gasp!) dumped. Crowlers helped save the day.
"We never really gave them a big push — until we had to," said Maura Hagerty Schwandt, co-owner of the northeast Minneapolis brewery.
Crowlers are the big 25.4-ounce cans you used to see only in back-corner coolers of taprooms or listed at the bottom of menus. Other states boast 32-ounce versions.
But crowlers quickly rose in popularity during the COVID-19 shutdown, when to-go sales became essential for breweries' survival. Ten months later, Bauhaus and other medium to small breweries across Minnesota are still heavily relying on them.
Customers have adapted, too, adjusting refrigerator space and pouring techniques to accommodate the bulkier aluminum vessels.
"The craft beer crowd is very loyal, and I think [crowlers] became a way for everyone to support their favorite local brewery," said Mark Cool, co-owner of Blacklist Brewing Co. in Duluth.
Crowler sales at Blacklist rose 400% over the first few months of the shutdown last year, Cool reported.
At ENKI Brewing in the western Twin Cities exurb of Victoria, sales of the big cans shot up 700% early in the pandemic, according to co-owner John Hayes. ENKI doesn't sell traditional-sized cans or distribute in liquor stores, so its taproom sales are everything.
"We really wish we were selling pints instead of crowlers, but we're happy to be selling at all," said Hayes, who made the difficult decision not to reopen ENKI's taproom for on-site consumption until the pandemic/vaccine numbers improve. (Most other taprooms reopened to 50% capacity in January after state guidelines were eased.)
"Some things are more important than the dollar," Hayes said, but added, "Why does Minnesota make it so hard for breweries to make a buck?"
Sour over state laws
As is often the case when Minnesota's notoriously arcane liquor laws are involved, local breweries' feelings toward crowler sales are complicated.
Most beer makers would rather sell traditional six- or 12-packs on-site in their taprooms, but Minnesota law prohibits that. The state does allow for growler and crowler sales in taprooms, but only the 25.4-ounce cans (equal to a 750-milliliter wine bottle).
"Since Minnesota is the only state that requires that [size], rather than the more common 32-ounce, it makes sourcing them increasingly difficult," said Lauren Bennett McGinty, executive director of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild.
What's more, Minnesota law dictates that the state's biggest breweries — ones over the 20,000-barrels-per-year threshold, such as Surly, Summit, Schell's and Castle Danger — cannot sell any kind of beer to go in their taprooms.
"It would be more ideal to allow breweries to sell their products in any size container up to 64 ounces to better serve their customers," Bennett McGinty said.
Crowlers are more complicated for breweries to package and sell, too.
The bigger cans usually have to be poured and sealed by hand, so they're more hands-on and laborious compared with 12- and 16-ounce canning lines. Hence the need to charge more per ounce for crowlers — usually $8 to $10 for standard beers, $12 to $15 for specialty brews.
"It's kind of a lousy deal for the consumer," ENKI's Hayes noted.
Crowlers also often have a more limited shelf life than regular cans, forcing breweries to better plan and manage quantities.
"[Crowlers] can usually only sit on shelves a few weeks instead of a few months, so we had to find our rhythm with them," said Bauhaus' Hagerty Schwandt, whose brewery opened a drive-through window and marketed its crowlers to brew up swifter sales.
For consumers, the upshot is the beer inside crowlers is often fresher, and it often includes limited-edition/seasonal brews not available in conventional cans. They're also easy to recycle. The downside is crowlers should be more quickly consumed — and unlike growlers, they're hard to save/seal for the next day if not finished in one sitting. (Let's face it, though, neither of these downsides has been much of a problem for beer drinkers during the pandemic.)
"I think they took some getting used to, but everyone's in the crowler zone now," said Blacklist's Cool, one brewer who hopes sales of the big cans stay strong even after the pandemic subsides.
"They're not perfect, but they're another option — which is exactly what we've needed over the past year."
How to pour and store crowlers
They're big, clunky and kind of hard to pour. And if you don't drink them all in one sitting, the beer can go flat fast. Here are tips on how to avoid these downsides of crowler cans as they continue to make an upswing at Minnesota breweries.
Pouring them: Because they're manually filled, crowlers can oftentimes be overfilled, manufacturer Tim Klein of Crowler Nation warned: "You might get splashed."
Open and pour over a sink. To avoid a glug-glug-glug effect (which can result in too much head in the glass), pour a little out, tilt the can back upright to let the can breathe, then pour the rest.
Storing them: "It's kind of a commitment when you open them," admitted Mark Cool of Duluth's Blacklist Brewing Co., whose heavier beers can be hard for one person to finish.
To save for later, try putting plastic wrap or a sandwich bag over the lid with a rubber binder to seal it. Or stack another can on top of it if there's room in the fridge. Crowler Nation does sell resealable cans with a twist-on lid, but those are rare in Minnesota.