Monday, 14 July 2014

Grunt work

One side effect of the slow, self-inflicted death of traditional high street off-licence chains is that space has been created for others to get in on the act. Some of the most disruptive entries are corner shops or convenience stores. Now this is not strictly a new thing because I distinctly remember buying unusual beers from a licensed grocer in Glasgow twenty years ago; but more recently more and more such shops have discovered that there's a market for beer beyond the slabs of Carling and Kestrel.

It’s all the more delightful to come across one of these because you expect – well, I do – to go to the corner shop and be faced with a depressing line-up of bland, mass-market beers. How nice it is to be able to choose from interesting local beers instead.

On the south side of Glasgow is Maxwells, in the middle of the rapidly hipsterising Pollokshields. Walk in and you see the cans of baked beans, tea bags and disposable nappies. Then you notice the beer shelves, stacked with the products of independent breweries: Stewart, Cairngorm, SixºNorth, Williams and more. I am told by people who know about these things that the wine range is not half bad either.

But I’m mentioning Maxwells chiefly because I think it was the first shop in Glasgow proper (barring Whole Foods in Giffnock) to do take-away growler fills. For about six months you’ve been able to go in and get draught Williams Joker IPA or WEST St Mungo to take out. Since I was last in they’ve added two lines from a clown brewery in Aberdeenshire too.

Take-away beer has a long history, of course. Some pubs still have engraved glass panels advertising “Jug & Bottle Dept” or “Family Dept” where containers would be filled. That practice nearly died out, at least round my way; as long as I can remember, pubs have rarely seemed interested in catering for off-sales. And while I will drink cask beer in the pub until the cows come home, it doesn’t respond well to being decanted into a bottle. It loses carbonation going into the bottle, the temperature isn’t low enough to stop it frothing all over the place, it sloshes about while you’re carrying it and you end up with flat beer. Some cask beers are so stunningly good that they even still taste nice after this treatment, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

It’s no real surprise then that the new wave of growler vendors are all doing it with keg beer, which has enough CO2 that it can afford to have some of the fizz knocked out in transit.

In addition to Maxwells, Valhalla’s Goat has got their own growler station up and running in the last few weeks too. And I have just been to see the man who’s launching a pop-up growler shop in the West End. Chicago-born Jehad Hatu plans to open his “Grunting Growler” shop three days a week in the premises of the Bike Station cycle shop near Kelvingrove Park. The plan is not to raise capital to later open a permanent shop, but to first of all demonstrate that the business model is viable.

As a student, explains Jehad, he and his friends couldn’t buy beer on a Sunday because local regulations prevented liquor stores from opening. But restaurants were allowed to sell growlers to take away, so they would get those instead. The growler thus has something of an emotional import to him – he wouldn’t want to open a beer shop or a bar. He’s also keen to improve the standard of growler filling. Most places, he explains, just fill the bottle straight from the tap, leading to oxidised beer that goes stale quickly. Grunting Growler will use sanitised growlers and fill them with a device which first flushes them with CO2, then fills them through a tube from the bottom to minimise splashing. Jehad wants to serve beer in the best quality possible: he has good beer from great breweries and doesn’t want to be to blame for customers getting beer in poor condition.

Jehad will have four keg taps to start with, but dreams of some day expanding to as many as twenty-four. Beer will be about £6.50 a litre and the pop-up opens for the first time on Thursday.

Grunting Growler
Glasgow Bike Station
65 Haugh Road
G3 8TX
10am–6pm, Thu–Sat between 17 July and 9 August

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