How goes it with those who can can?: Crowler updates for RVA!

Hardywood and Strangeways are still Crowlering it up—and there’s been an update on the ABC situation. In case you missed our piece on these huge aluminum cans, in which you can stick your choice of beer, straight from the tap, we’ve included it for your convenience!

Update #1 — July 15, 2015; 2:07 PM

It’s been about eight months since we ran this article on the giant, convenient, fill-er-up-with-whatever beer cans often referred to as “Crowlers.” We’re pleased to inform you that the number of RVA breweries offering these aluminum gems has increased by one: The Answer will put a Crowler together for you, no prob.


And guess the heck what? All that trouble they went through to fill those Crowlers in the back due to weird ABC regulations that just hadn’t caught up with the future? (Read the article below for a refresher, if you like!)

Kathleen Shaw, the Public Relations Manager from the Virginia ABC, was kind enough to tell me that the General Assembly passed legislation that would allow the ABC to come up with a regulation for aluminum sealed containers. In other words, it’s being fast-tracked for legitimacy!

Here’s the excerpt from the Act (H 1439), approved on March 23rd, 2015, which amends a bunch of sections of the Code of Virginia, letting the ABC…

  1. Permit the sale of wine and beer by retailers licensed to sell beer and wine for both on-premises and off-premises consumption, or by gourmet shop licensees for off-premises consumption in sealed containers made of metal or other materials approved by the Board with a maximum capacity of 32 fluid ounces or, for metric-sized containers, one liter, provided that the alcoholic beverage is placed in the container following an order from the consumer.

…AFTER they write a regulation that makes it so. Bureaucracy, dudes! But at least that’s progress.


So how’s life in Crowler Country? Going pretty well, according to Erin from Strangeways and Matt from Hardywood, both of whom graciously gave me their summer crowler partytime updates.

Erin Brunner from Strangeways

Strangeways’s “Can-Ables” continue to be extra popular, particularly with in the summer. “People are going to the beach, to the river, to pools…” says Brunner. “And these are places people can’t bring glass growlers. Plus, a lot of our fall beers that are seasonal aren’t around anymore, so a lot of people were scrambling to can those last bits before summer.”

What is everyone can-abling right now? “The Radlers,” she says immediately. These lemon (“zitrone”), orange (“apfelsine”), and grapefruit (“pomelmuse”) brews are 3.2% alcohol, and a huge hit with the warm-weather crowd. “It’s our “all day” beer. People come in and get a couple of Can-Ables and say ‘I’m going to drink this allllll day long.'”

It does sound a lot easier to mow the lawn with a can-able in one hand than a glass growler.

As the summer ends, we recommend you go by Strangeways and fill up some Can-Ables with Radlers. You’ll thank us come October when there’s a warm snap and you’re into porch-sitting again. That stuff will be so fresh, and, of course, so clean.

Matt Shofner from Hardywood

Everything’s flowing smoothly over at Hardywood Park, says Matt Shofner, who is delighted at recent ABC changes. “We still can’t fill your tube of toothpaste or your mom’s purse from the taps, but Crowlers are a go!” he says. “A slight adjustment to the law of the land has opened up a whole new can of beer, or rather, allowed us to fill and seal it straight from the tap, before your very eyes.”

Hardywood fans are as stoked as Strangeways fans on the durability of a Crowler and the freshness of the beer it contains. “Crowlers have proven to be a fantastic way for us to get our product out there,” says Shofner. He suggests to fill many, many Crowlers up with Virginia Blackberry, Berliner Weisse, and their upcoming Lemon Ginger Wheat, which they’re releasing this Friday, July 17th. Fingers crossed it tastes like these cookies, which are the most delicious treat in the world. Proceeds from the sale of that possibly-cookie-flavored-beer will benefit Children’s Miracle Network via the Anthem LemonAid Challenge.

— ∮∮∮ —

Original — December 04, 2014

Last summer, I took a growler of local pilsner to a swimming pool. A growler, in case you don’t know, is a glass jug that holds lots of beer. It’s refillable, and you take it to the brewery whence it came and get some fresh suds to take home (or wherever). It’s cheaper, it’s fresher, and everyone’s really stoked about them all the time.

Anyway, I had only managed to pour one cup of the pilsner before my slippery swimming-pool hands dropped the dang thing, which smashed into a trillion pieces on the concrete, getting me and my whole party kicked sternly out, even in our sad bloody-footed state. What’s worse, my friend Liam–the only one who got a cup of beer–complained that his drink tasted markedly past its prime.

None of this actually happened. I’m a wine drinker. I dutifully follow no-glass pool rules. I don’t know anyone named Liam, and I’m not sure I’d even want to know that guy. He sounds like a real whiner.

There’s a new packaging process in town that solves all these hypothetical woes, though. And for many of you, they may be real woes–skunked beer that’s been out of the keg too long and has been addled by light, an inability to travel with a fragile glass vessel, and the annoying brewery-goer problem of having to keep track of all these frigging empties.

Behold, the coming of a new era. The Crowler™ era.

Caption: The Strangeways "Can-Able" is the same size as its "Grunt," that is, 32 ounces. It is not filled with human flesh.

The Strangeways “Can-Able” is the same size as its “Grunt,” that is, 32 ounces. It is not filled with human flesh.

The Crowler, which is so new that iOS autocorrect will not stop giving me grief about it and so new that it still needs to be capitalized, is a 32-ounce aluminum can that is filled straight from the tap and sealed with an on-site machine. It admits no light but suffers plenty of fools…in that if you drop a (sealed) Crowler, everything’s going to be fine. Because oxygen is sucked out and replaced by CO2, the craft beer inside will taste just like it came straight from the tap for about a month.

Sound simple? If you think so, you’re the one who’s simple, then! This beery innovation is about to revolutionize a tiny bit of the lives of people who like to take beer home from a brewery! Of course, that’s if it can get past the ABC.

It’s all fun and beer until somebody loses an eye

The Crowler’s two loving parents are Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado and the jar geniuses at Ball. According to the latter’s website, their cans are “mini-kegs for your craft beer,” with a special polymer that keeps the beer from coming into contact with aluminum, an ability to cool its contents faster than glass, a (figuratively) ironclad defense against Evil Oxygen, and all the other benefits we’ve already covered. At 32 ounces, the Crowler is the biggest can that Ball manufacturers, and Oskar Blues lore states that Ball came to the table with the idea to use this already existing can to allow on-site packaging of beer by individual consumer demand.

The fixings for making a Hardywood-branded Crowler. I was not allowed to do so.

The fixings for making a Hardywood-branded Crowler. I was not allowed to do so.

Strangeways Brewing Co. and Hardywood Park Brewery, both beloved staples of the newish RVA craft beer scene, ran neck and neck to become the first brewery in Richmond to offer Crowlers. (I’m still unclear who won.) Strangeways already purged oxygen from their glass growlers, so they figure the aluminum version only moderately improves their existing system. For Hardywood (and its loyal fan-base), however, it’s a game-changer.

Both had to acquire seamer machines to make this work the same way that growlers do, i.e. at point of purchase with, let’s be honest, a fair amount of showmanship for the salivating consumer’s benefit. It’s just plain cool to can a thing behind a bar, and I say that knowing that ten years from now that sentence will sound like I just said “It’s awfully astounding to hear a fellow’s voice travel through a telephone wire, eh, kid?”

The Wafco Master-Sealer, which looks like something from 1910, but in a nice, comforting way.

The Wafco Master-Sealer, which looks like something from 1910, but in a nice, comforting way.

Oskar Blues (proud Crowler father) sells one by Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry that they’ve specially developed for bartop canning. But Dixie Canner, a Georgia-based company, now offers their own version, as used by Crowler advocate and Florida brewer, Cigar City. Hardywood went with the former, while Strangeways snagged one of the latter. I won’t say which one is a sexier machine.

Except I will, and it’s the Dixie.

See what I mean? (That's Erin giving a demo).

See what I mean? (That’s Erin giving a demo).

So there they all were, crowding around their new machines, seaming cans left and right, and hopefully wearing their safety goggles (“It’s all fun and beer until someone loses an eye,” says Erin Brunner, Hospitality & Events Manager at Strangeways). Beer was staying fresh in its giant cans with its brand-new labels, just making everyone’s hands look tiny as they held their Crowlers and gazed at them with love.

That is, until the doors to both breweries opened, and their dark-suited, grim-faced ABC agents strode in.

If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet

I’m lying again. I have no idea what ABC agents wear, and I’m sure they’re not grim-faced when they come into a brewery, as the smell is rather pleasant–like someone spilled alcohol overtop of a fresh loaf of bread.

Matt Shofner, Assistant Hospitality Manager at Hardywood, broke down how their plans for Crowlers smashed to pieces, like it was made of inferior, pathetic glass instead of versatile aluminum.

“I received a phone call from a gentleman at another brewery, way west of here…in the mountains. His ABC agent told him Crowlers are illegal here in the state of Virginia,” so Matt and his colleagues decided to be proactive. They emailed that gentleman’s agent, politely asking him WTF he meant by “illegal.”

It all comes down to taxing: when you sell a beer in a tasting room to a lady named Rhonda, that gets taxed one way. Rhonda finishes her beer on the premises. If Rhonda asks for a six-pack to take home, that comes from the back room and is taxed another way, with the “excise tax.” One’s like a bar, and one’s like a store.

The excise tax is also called a duty tax–it basically just means that you’re buying a good that has been produced, and that good is now being taxed. Only the stuff from the back room is subject to excise tax. The stuff in the tasting room is not, as it’s being consumed on the premises.

The (glass) growler is the only thing permitted currently to be sold for off-premises consumption that does not have excise tax. “No wine or beer shall be sold for off-premises consumption in any container upon which the original closure has been broken, except for a growler,” says Johnny Law1 “In other words,” says Matt. “You can’t bring in your Aquafina water bottle and put beer in it. Or your tube of toothpaste. Or your mom’s purse.” At which point, I closed my mom’s purse with its tube of toothpaste in it and hoped he hadn’t caught onto my game.

I was kidding, but a Crowler did neatly fit into my purse and made everything in it very cold.

I was kidding, but a Crowler did neatly fit into my purse and made everything in it very cold.

Confused yet? So is everybody else.

Matt was convinced that the reseal-inability of the Crowler was a stupid and pointless distinction that couldn’t possibly be a real thing. The agent wrote back, saying that the law is the law, and it’s not for mortals to interpret (my words).

Five minutes later, Matt swears up and down, Hardywood’s own local agent walked through the door for an inspection. Then, they made a visit to Strangeways and gave them the bad news as well.

Well, it’s sort of bad.

Both breweries can still sell Crowlers, but just as they would sell a canned six-pack. Matt and Erin’s colleagues would can a couple hundred before an event, maybe, and Rhonda would ask for a Crowler (or “Can-Able,” as Strangeways is calling it) of her favorite brew. The employee would go back into the bonded area (back room, where the excise tax is in full effect), grab a pre-filled Crowler, and sell it to Rhonda, who goes home only slightly disappointed that she didn’t get to see the machine do its thing and maybe with a tiny nagging worry that this beer isn’t quite as fresh as it could have been. Although, with Crowler fans boasting that the can keeps beer at the top of its shelf life for an extended period of time, what’s the difference, really?

The seamer machines only seal one can at a time, for one. So an on-the-spot manual process has now gone back with the more mass-consumption-oriented machines, which can’t be good for the seamer’s self-image. Also, it undermines a lot of the whole point. “So now it’s just a really laborious way to bottle beer,” says Matt.

Clockwise from left: Matt Shofner, Jason Blythe, The Laborious Machine, and the noble Crowler

Clockwise from left: Matt Shofner, Jason Blythe, The Laborious Machine, and the noble Crowler

Strangeways isn’t too bothered. Erin tells me customer reception has been great, regardless. The coolness factor combined with the fact that they don’t know it’s supposed to be put together before their very eyes combined with all of the other amazing wonders that a Crowler (er, Can-Able) provides to a beer lover…Plus, Erin suspects that real beer fans are both knowledgeable and respectful of ABC laws, and they get why things are the way they are. But she’s with Matt in that they both think the laws will change once the state has had a chance to reflect on the fact that a Crowler is meant to be consumed the same way as its glass, resealable forefather.

Other states don’t have a problem with it, anyway. And the cries of beer aficionados who refuse to let light taint their pale ale will hopefully reach the ears of the grim-faced, suited ones. (Again, that statement is not based in any reality).

Incidentally, I asked Matt what exactly light does to beer. He answered in six words: “Have you ever had a Corona?” I HAVE, people! Is that not what beer tastes like? I thought you were all under some weird spell to which I have thankfully been immune. But it turns out that my college beer experience should not be indicative of the whole, and the Crowler-encased beer that I got to try was proof. Maybe I am a convert! But also, maybe we should put wine in these things!

You can purchase Crowlers at Hardywood and Strangeways, usually during events and beer releases. And I tried a Crowler of Gingerbread stout and a Can-Able of Gingerbread Ümlaut Böktoberfest. I recommend you bring one of each to Christmas dinner.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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