As I left the bar last night I remembered that I had to pick up some razors and toilet paper, so I popped into the Duane Reade on 14th Street by Union Square, a new-ish shop occupying part of the space that was once a Virgin megastore. I’ve long known that the ubiquitous New York drugstore chain was adding all sorts of items, from fresh produce to ready-made sandwiches, in a bid to get people to shop there and nowhere else, but I wasn’t prepared for this: Duane Reade now has a well-stocked growler-filling station.
I’ve been a fan of growlers (refillable beer containers) for years, because everything about them is good: You get fresh draft beer–the best kind of beer–to enjoy at home, it costs way less than it would at a bar, and you’re saving the environment by using your own container and creating no waste. But something about growlers always seemed a bit too folksy for a chain like Duane Reade, where everything is shrink-wrapped and safety-sealed. Add three X’s on the side and your growler looks like something a barefoot hillbilly would drink moonshine out of. But with "Brew York City," Duane Reade is going for it, and that’s good for beer enthusiasts such as myself, and bad for small specialty beer stores.
I didn’t have a growler with me, plus I had three Guinness and a Jameson in my belly, so I didn’t partake, but I did take a good look at Duane Reade’s growler setup. It’s impressive. They’ve got a wall of growlers you can purchase if you don’t already own one–like the amazing ceramic growler Kaufmann Mercantile sells–for just $3.99. (At my local growlery they cost five bucks apiece.) And Duane Reade has no fewer than nine beers on tap, which is more than some bars have. The selection is impressive, if somewhat mainstream, with beers from such noted breweries as Bear Republic, Captain Lawrence, Founders, the Brooklyn Brewery, and Sixpoint. Best of all, they’ve got the cheapest growler prices I’ve ever seen, with all of them coming in at under ten bucks.
Grok this: In New York these days, almost every decent beer costs at least $12 a six-pack, with some downtown bodegas charging up to $15. A growler holds 64 ounces of beer, which is just 10 ounces shy of a sixer, and the beer is better simply by virtue of coming from a keg. Assuming that Duane Reade has a rigorous policy of keeping their tap-lines clean, a $7.99 growler fill is an unbelievable bargain. I usually pay in a range of $12 to $16. So, awesome beer, cheap, and available right where you are. If you really love good beer, that’s hard to resist.
So, the downside? Mom and pop beer shops are in trouble, because a Walmart equivalent has entered the market. They’ve got scale, pricing power, and ubiquitousness. No, they don’t have much soul, but for a five-dollar price difference for the same product, most people will deal with it. For the time being, little shops like The Ploughman will maintain a slight edge among purists by having edgier brews (Duane Reade sells Shock Top). For many people, though, Duane Reade will be their introduction to the growler world, and they’re going to like it.
Despite my own aversion to chain stores and love for small business, I will be bringing at least one of my two growlers to work with me on Friday, to fill up with fresh draft beer before heading to Brooklyn for the weekend. Price, convenience, quality. It matters to me, and Duane Reade is doing it well. It’s too good to ignore, or stand on some indie-beer principle. Sometimes I just want a cold one, and boy do they have it.
[Related: BlackBook New York Guide; Hey Beer World: Stop Worrying and Embrace the Growler Already; Wine Kegs, Growlers, and Plorks: Let’s Hear It for the Evolution of Booze Containers; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter]