08 Aug 2013 @ 11:00 AM 
 

On Mystery’s Decision to End Growler Returns

 

Yesterday, we announced over at Mystery Brewing Company that, as of September 1st, we’d no longer be offering refunds on growlers. Since this decision looks like it’s coming a little out of left field, and because I’ve always wanted this blog to be a little behind-the-scenes-ish for the brewing industry, I thought I’d take the time to lay out my reasoning behind why we’re doiing this.

Reason #1: Cleaning Growlers Sucks

It’s incredibly time-consuming and incredibly wasteful. To be fair, we don’t have a top-of-the-line growler cleaning machine, but that’s primarily because – as near as I can tell – one doesn’t exist. Here’s how we clean growlers right now:

  1. Remove the growler from the box that it was returned in.
  2. Remove and discard the cap, remove any stickers, price tags, or anything else that has been affixed to the growler.
  3. Rinse the growler with water (with one of those homebrew jet bottle washers).
  4. If anything particularly nasty has come out like cigarette butts, cockroaches, mice, used bandages (ALL TRUE) or anything similar, discard the growler.
  5. If not, put the growler onto the growler washer for a caustic rinse.
  6. After the caustic rinse, manually inspect the growler for stubborn stains, flies, cracks, chips, etc.
  7. If there are stubborn stains, put the growlers to soak in a hot caustic solution to remove those stubborn stains, flies, etc.
  8. If there are cracks, chips, etc., immediately discard the growler.
  9. After the caustic rinse and/or soak has been completed, each growler is rinsed with sanitizing solution to both neutralize the caustic and get it ready for fills. If you’re not filling as you’re cleaning, each growler is then re-boxed upside down to allow liquid to drain.

THEN when we fill them we re-inspect them (to make sure nothing’s happened inside, or someone hasn’t missed something earlier in the process).

Cleaning growlers is incredibly time consuming. Through 2013, cleaning growlers has been almost a full-time job at Mystery. It’s our estimate that we spend up to 30 hours of employee time every week cleaning growlers on an average week. If you count the amount of money that goes toward cleaning chemicals, water, caps, tape, and growlers that we just plain have to throw away because people are disgusting, on top of employee time, then every time we get a growler back from the marketplace that we need to clean, our profit on that original fill has been completely wiped out. If we were to get that same growler back again (which we have no good way of tracking), we would lose money. Losing money is not a good way to run a business. So the decision is partly an economic one.

Could we cut corners? Sure. But then our growlers would be gross. That’s also not a good way to run a business. Particularly one that relies on repeat purchases.

Reason #2: Growler Returns are a Logistical Nightmare

Getting growlers back from stores isn’t efficient or easy, either. Rather than just making a delivery to a store, you are now requiring a driver to go through the exercise of collecting and transporting empty bottles. Among the issues here:

  • Store employees often don’t sort growlers by brand, requiring a driver to go through box after box of empty growlers in order to make sure that they’re not paying a refund out for a growler that they’re not supposed to be picking up.
  • Since growlers often come back from consumers dirty, they often attract pests (normally thousands of fruit flies). Because of this, many stores keep growlers in locations away from everything else – at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the basement, locked in a storage shed outside the store, or even in multiple locations around the store.
  • Empty growlers rattle around in a truck much easier than full growlers. They’re much more likely to break when they’re empty because they don’t have mass keeping them in place.
  • The cardboard boxes that we use deteriorate as they go from warm to cold environments or dry to wet environments or any combination thereof. They break, they rip, the tape falls off, they have three or four different brands on them. Sometimes stores throw them out altogether and there is no good way to pick up empty growlers except for “loose.”

The crux of the issue here is that having a driver pick up empties adds a significant amount of time onto their route, and often adds an extra level of training and complexity, so it’s also inefficient and costly to the distributor.

Reason #3: Retail Growler Fills are now legal in NC

This summer, the North Carolina Legislature passed a law allowing retail growler fills in North Carolina (Session Law 2013-76). While the rules for this are not yet in place and it is not currently legal for retail establishments to fill growlers, it will be very soon. We anticipate that this will greatly reduce the amount of growler sales we make across the board.

Simply put: If a store can buy a keg from me and fill growlers with it, thereby making a much larger profit, why would they buy pre-filled growlers from me? Sure, some will, but many will not. Among the largest proponents of the retail growler law are Total Wine and Whole Foods, both of which have growler filling stations in other states, both of which are enormous potential customers for us when it comes to retail packaging. We’d rather sell them bottles than not sell them growlers. Or, better yet, sell them bottles and kegs so they can fill growlers themselves.

Reason #4: We’re Moving Into 22 oz. Bottles

And there it is: We’re moving into the bottle market. We’re interested in going into smaller packages that have a lower cost for us (growlers are crazy expensive), more portability, and lower cost in the marketplace. We’ve been told that in all cases in the local market, when a brewery has gone from offering growlers-only to growlers and bottles that their growler sales have dropped precipitously.

Reason #5: We Just Don’t Want To

We, the staff at the brewery, find growlers to be incredibly cumbersome and unpleasant.

Cleaning growlers is one of the grossest jobs we have. It’s full of old stale and rotten beer smells, mold, flies, and broken glass. We spend a lot of time with vinegary beer splashing on our clothes and ourselves, we spend hours wearing layers of protective gear as we clean them to keep chemicals off of us, or keep broken glass off of us. We spend hours scraping price tags and old stickers off of them. It’s just not nice. If we can make a more pleasant working environment while getting beer out to people in a better and more efficient way, we absolutely will.

In Summary

Growlers have been an important part of Mystery’s growth. In our first year, growlers made up a significant amount of our income. They have been an important part of getting our brand into the state and into the consciousness of state’s beer geek population, but we feel that with the combination of process problems inherent in growlers alongside the future of the marketplace (as we see it), that our time with them as a packaging option in bottle shops and grocery stores is coming to a close.

We’re excited to get smaller and better packaging out and we think everyone else will be excited to see it, too.

Tags Categories: brewery, distribution, Mystery Brewing Company, NC Beer, packaging Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 08 Aug 2013 @ 11 16 AM

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