Beer Run

Beer Run: Are craft brewery memberships a good fit?

Track 7 Brewery’s growler membership last year helped the company buy new equipment and get to the next level.
Track 7 Brewery’s growler membership last year helped the company buy new equipment and get to the next level. Sacramento Bee file

Fall is the time to take stock. No, I’m not talking about your life’s purpose, faith, relationships or waistline. I’m not even referring to your fantasy football roster.

If you’re a devoted craft beer lover, don’t wait too long to pull the trigger on special brewery deals and memberships for 2016.

There are a lot of them out there, and I’m going to help you determine if this kind of thing is the right fit for your lifestyle and wallet.

The best memberships fill up quickly, which means you could find yourself on the outside looking in as your fellow beer geeks enjoy some really cool beers not available to the general public and your beer-drinking buds keep tweeting that they got $5 off their 64-ounce growler.

For the purposes of this column, I’m referring to two main membership options: 1. The club membership for limited release beers, and 2. The growler fill membership that gives you sizable discounts on refills throughout the year. Prices range from about $150 to more than $500 a year. Both are also excellent holiday gift ideas.

I spoke with craft beer enthusiast Ryan Schauland, who told me he had a Track 7 growler membership for two years, then skipped it last year. Turns out, he and his wife, Rebeca, who live nearby in Curtis Park and often rode their bikes to the brewery, missed it. The growlers were always a hit at barbecues and he enjoyed using them to introduce friends from out of town to a hot new brewery’s beer. Yes, if you show up at a party with a growler full of great beer, you’re probably going to stay on the A-list for the next time.

Of his growler fills, Schauland said, “It’s a tastier, fresher version of the stuff I can get at the store.”

Growler fill memberships, however, are not for everybody. That’s especially true now that we have 40 craft breweries in the region and if you don’t want to be tied to one, feeling as if you have to keep drinking that beer to get your money’s worth out of the membership. That money, you should know, is paid up front, and your odds of getting a refund if it’s not your thing halfway through 2016 are unlikely. Further, if you don’t finish the growler right away, it will go flat and spoil rather quickly because of all the air in the container. If that stresses you out, pass on growler fill memberships.

For special release clubs, two breweries you should seriously consider are Mraz and Sudwerk. Both are consistently crafting some outstanding barrel-aged beers that showcase artistic flair mixed with a good bit of science. These beers are for the connoisseurs and are almost always made in small batches. If you’re part of a bottle share, these two clubs are a good bet.

Mike Mraz tells me that enrollment for his Barrel Room membership opened Friday, Oct. 16, and will close as soon as 350 people are signed up. In the past two years, members were limited to 100. Mraz has expanded its capacity with a warehouse location for its barrel program.

The cost is $225 plus tax. For that, you get a special 3-liter bottle and two 500-milliliter bottles of five different releases of barrel-aged beers, many of them sours. You also get two pieces of Mraz glassware, 10 percent off tasting room purchases, first dibs on all limited release beers throughout the year, along with dibs on signing up for 2017.

If you’re not familiar with Mraz, you should know that when his barrel-aged creations are sold to the general public, people line up in droves and the inventory is gobbled up in a couple of hours. The beer is that good. Even with his expanded barrel program, demand is sure to exceed supply.

I’ve tasted several superb beers at Sudwerk, many of which are part of the Davis brewery’s “Brewers Cut” series. For 2015, the $170 membership was limited to 50 and it sold out quickly. If you can get in for 2016, you’re going to get two bottles from each of six special 500-milliliter releases throughout the year, members-only glassware and T-shirt, discounts at the dock store tasting room, and pre-release dibs on special beers, most of which will be barrel aged. Specifics on the 2016 membership were not available at press time, so keep an eye on the Sudwerk website if this is something you want.

For the growler fill membership, there are plenty of things to think about. For one, it feels good to support your local brewery by ponying up a significant amount of money in advance in exchange for discount fills throughout the year.

Sometimes, that feel-good thing can get out of hand. I’m thinking about the first year at once-tiny, up-and-coming Track 7, which introduced an “almost bottomless growler” membership for $749 in 2013. That’s a lot of money. But it’s also a lot of beer – you could fill the growler every day the brewery was open. Many people sharpened their pencils, pooled their resources with friends and relatives and, when all was said and filled, nearly drained the tanks dry at Track 7. If you got one over on Track 7, you’re probably on the waiting list for a liver transplant by now.

The up-front money helped Track 7 buy new equipment and get to the next level. The brewery also learned its lesson, which could be summed up thusly: Whoa!

Now, it’s $550 for 64-ounce growler fills up to twice a week. This includes a new insulated Hydro Flask growler that will keep the beer colder far longer than the standard glass or stainless container. Bike Dog’s membership is $450 for one weekly fill.

Most local breweries have comparable memberships, including Knee Deep, Yolo Brewing and, new for this year, Rubicon. That’s right, after 28 years, Rubicon in midtown has applied to the city to tweak its beer license so it can fill growlers. Membership for 2016 is $250, which gives you 64-ounce and 32-ounce growlers and a 30 percent discount on refills. Generally, that would be $5 off a standard $15 64-ounce fill. You also get 50 cents off pints at the pub at 2004 Capitol Ave.

If you can drink all that beer to get your money’s worth and still make the rounds to all of the great breweries in the area and beyond, more power to you!

Blair Anthony Robertson: (916) 321-1099, @Blarob

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