The Growler Part II: The Present and Future

From kelliedayart.com

This is the 2nd and final part of our series on the growler. Check out Part One on the history of the growler. This article focuses on the views of the growler's role in the modern day beer industry from some of the leading brewers and brewery CEO's including Greg Koch from Stone, Joe Morhfeld from Odell, Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewing, and Matt Thrall from Avery. The article also looks at some of the present and future modifications companies are making to growlers to make sure the beers are fresh to consumers. So sit back, grab a growler, pour a pint, turn up the radio, and enjoy the read!


Are Growlers Evil?
Since the late 1980's, the growler has been an ever increasing popular option for beer-to-go from favorite local breweries. In fact I cannot think of a brewery in Colorado today that doesn't offer a growler fill. And they are popular too (at least in Colorado). Many taprooms have a special area at the bar for growler fills only. Growlers are regular attendees of parties, potlucks, club meetings, camping trips, ski trips, and river trips. I have never seen anyone frown when they heard there was a growler of beer. Usually the person gets a big grin and immediately wants to try "the fresh" version of the beer straight from the brewery. This excitement isn't just coming from the guy who only drinks "The Beast" from a can . These positive feeling towards growlers are coming from craft beer lovers, beer judges, beer servers, beer reps, and brewers that I role with. So when I read the article Why Beer Growlers are Bad for your Brew from the website bon appetit, I was surprised at such a one sided article about something that I had always considered my ally towards enjoying beer. In the article, the writer gives a one sided account of the evils of the growler based on the views of Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and a well respected beer advocate in the industry. The following are some of the comments in the article:


In short, [Oliver] thinks [growlers] suck

"Brewers tend to hate them. Growlers are basically beer destroyers. They're often unsanitary, and the refilling process mixes in a lot of oxygen--the tiniest amount of oxygen kills beer so quickly. Then, if you walk across the street with say, an IPA, in full sunlight, with a clear growler, the beer will skunk before you get to your car."

"A brewery will tell you to drink it within a day or two, but plans change. By the time you get around to actually drinking the beer, the chance that the growler will be anywhere close to as perfect as the brewer feels he was able to make it is pretty low."

I do agree that there are some valid points that are made from Garrett Oliver, who I do respect in the brewing community. Here are three points that I agree with:


Oxygen is not a friend of beer. There are multiple scientific articles addressing the oxidative reactions of beer. Yeast needs oxygen to live and convert starches to alcohol, but that's about the only good thing that oxygen does for beer. If you have ever opened a bottle of beer and thought "this beer tastes old or stale", that's probably due to oxidation. Heat and motion can accelerate these oxidative reactions too. Oxidative effects in light-colored beer can taste like cardboard or lipstick. Aroma usually decreases or disappears. That's why it's better to drink hoppy beers like IPAs and DIPAs when they are fresh to catch all the aromas the brewer intended to capture. Dark higher alcohol beers that are rich in malt aromas can be replaced by a sweet, cherry like aroma. This can be a nice change, but the malt flavor can decrease. Some beers will produce an unpleasant metallic flavor as they age.


Sunlight is not a beer's friend either. Light-struck beer can give you that skunky or catty flavor and aroma not too many people enjoy. This happens to any beer with hop oils, which is pretty much all beers. As the hop oils are exposed to light, they chemically change to produce the skunky flavors. Direct sunlight will cause the fastest reaction. Even fluorescent lights will cause slow reactions. Ways to avoid light-struck beer are pretty obvious. The darker the color of glass, the better. Storing beer in dark cold rooms also helps the cause. It's probably best to avoid buying beers that have been sitting in the storefront window for weeks.


Unsanitary growlers do not make a great vessel for fresh beer. Brewery friends have told me stories of people bringing in growlers with a sludge of old beer, mold, and who-knows-what growing at the bottom of the growler expecting the brewery to miraculously clean their growler to like new conditions and fill it with beer. As a homebrewer, I know the correct way of cleaning and sanitizing my growlers, but that's probably not the case with the typical beer drinker. Some advise I've heard on cleaning is that a hot water rinse will usually do the trick immediately after it is emptied. Leave the cap off for storage. If it's dirty, soap and water will work but make sure all the soap is gone. If it's been sitting around for awhile and you don't have any brewing cleaning supplies, soap, water, and a tiny bit of bleach can be used.


Opinions from other Beer Experts

So should the brewing industry just do away with the growler? What about the typical new brown growler fill at the local taproom? Is the beer too oxidized and light struck by the time it gets to your house to be enjoyable and not up to the breweries standards for their beer? I was skeptical these feeling were mutual by brewers across the board so I asked a few brewers their opinions.


Greg Koch, CEO and Co-Founder of Stone Brewing Co., states that there is no “bulletproof” container for storing beer whether that be a keg, bottle, or growler. Koch does, however, stand by their growler fills at the brewery. Each of their growlers has the date it was filled and a disclaimer stating that the beer should be drunk in less than 24 hours. If it’s not consumed by 24 hours, then it is out of Stone’s hands for freshness. Koch emphasized that growlers are not meant to be shipped which is a common beer trader practice. “You aren’t going to put Saran wrap on a glass of beer and ship it. Growlers are a little better than that but not by much.” Koch also states that they chose superior quality growlers to address some of the potential risks that the classic jug growler is more prone to. Their flip top growlers have thicker dark brown glass and a very good seal to retain carbonation. The stainless steel Kanteen is higher in price but is indestructible, has a great seal, and is impermeable to light.


Another point that Greg Koch did address and emphasize was on the positive environmental role growlers play in the beer industry. Koch is well known for his passionate stance on the environment and the company’s commitment to running its business as green and as sustainable as possible. He points to places such as New York City, Chicago, and Kentucky where one can go into grocery stores such as Whole Foods, beer bars, and even some gas stations and get growler fills of what’s on tap. He supports this movement. He sees no way that allowing this practice would have an effect on public responsibility or disrupt the moral fiber of society. From a green perspective, a reusable growler in the house is more environmentally conscious than an empty six pack of bottles. Breweries would also be able to ship more kegs if less bottles are sold. Kegs could be sent back to the brewery while not all bottles are recycled.


Joe Mohrfeld, head brewer at Odell Brewing and newly appointed head brewer for Pinthouse Pizza in Austin, TX, states that he enjoys growlers. He agrees that clear growlers kept for days under not so ideal circumstances will taste inferior to a freshly poured pint in the brewery, but he also believes that a freshly poured growler enjoyed that day or night will likely taste better than any bottle/can picked up in the market, especially on a warm shelf. Growlers may not be the absolute best way to "package" beer, but they do serve a purpose. They are 100% reusable and they do provide another option for craft beer enthusiasts to enjoy a great beer from the brewery. Mohrfeld gives two examples of where growler fills make even more sense than at breweries that both keg and package. Georgetown Brewing in Seattle, makers of Manny's Pale Ale, provide to-go growler sales which they fill from a pre-evacuating growler filler. They are a draft only brewery and this provides an option for people traveling through to grab a growler and enjoy later. The other example is Fitgers Brewhouse in Duluth, MN, they offer a unique nalgene growler for those who may be taking their beer with them into, say, the BWCA or North Shore of Lake Superior which is near Duluth. It is great to be able to take local brewer's beer with while paddling and when the growler is empty be able to use the vessel for water storage rather than carrying empty cans the rest of the trip. Mohrfeld lastly states, "So long story short, growlers may not be ideal packages for beer, but there are a lot of great breweries who I want to take some beer home with me that night and drink their beer with friends and for that growlers work fine, and bottles and cans that have sat for months on a warm shelf in an off-premise account that cares little about craft beer are no better off so we should always strive to drink beer as fresh as possible."

Matt Thrall, head brewer at Avery Brewing, has a shorter view on growlers. Thrall states that as long as the beer is consumed within a very short time frame (a few hours tops) he has no problem with growlers. Otherwise, he takes Mr. Oliver's opinion that growlers equate to "putting a nice meal in a bag and then nuking it for lunch the next day."


Making a Better Growler

After discussing growlers with multiple brewers and brewery owners, there seemed to be some common themes. For the most part growlers are a good option for beer drinkers IF the growler is clean and is consumed within a short period of time. The quicker the consumption, the fresher the beer and less risk for oxidation and sun-struck effects on the beer. Growlers are not meant to be consumed over a long period of time, and they should not be brought back dirty for a refill. I don't see growlers going away anytime soon, and some breweries are changing the look of the growler to address some of the negative factors that can affect fresh beer.

Most breweries use dark brown growlers to avoid direct sunlight exposure. Odell brewing still continues to use the clear growler. Mohrfeld states that is because it allows a quick visual of the cleanliness of the growler. "The potential for skunky beer is the downside but that can be easily remediable with an insulated growler jacket that they sell which keeps the growler cold and blocks out the light. Most people do not treat their growler all that well and the clear glass makes sure at least we are pouring beer into a clean vessel."

Some breweries are using growlers with narrower necks and/or flip top porcelain caps with rubber seals. These growlers theoretically can keep the freshness of the beer longer. A narrower neck allows less oxygen mixing with the beer during a growler fill. The flip top caps could potentially make the growler more air-tight, prolonging the freshness of the beer prior to opening.

Stainless steel growlers are also slowly making their way to the beer scene. Stone brewing sells a 40oz. Kanteen made by Klean Kanteen makers of stainless steel water bottles and cups. Bonfire Brewing, a new brewery in Eagle, CO, uses a stainless steel 64oz. container from Hydroflask. The manufacturer states that "it keeps cold cold for 24 hrs". Bonfire was looking for a vessel that could withstand activities such as boating, hiking, biking, and camping that a glass growler could not and could accommodate fills and refills. They like the stainless steel option because it lasts longer, is easier to clean, has uses other than beer, and is 100% recyclable.


Other companies are in the works to unveil their versions of growlers. The Zythos Project, a Portland, OR, company is in the works for 2012 to release the Brauler, a 64oz. stainless steel vessel that is described as a modular growler system. It is being designed to accommodate multiple cap options and accessories including a CO2 cartridge charged tap-cap which will allow users to dispense beer under top pressure through a tap and even gently and safely recharge flat beer. They state that their stainless steel growler will be superior to other similar types because of a highly engineered thread/cap system that effectively contains pressure that others don't because they've come from the water bottle world. Plus it has a very wide neck for easy cleaning and seeing into the vessel.

Final Words

The growler has helped US beer lovers, in one form or another, enjoy portable beer for over 150 years. The growler is by no means a perfect vessel, but it can provide us with a unique beer experience if we handle the growler with care and consume the beer in a short period of time. I agree with Greg Koch that growler fills at beer bars, convenience stores, and grocery stores would be a smart environmental paradigm shift, and I hope laws are changed in states where this form of service is illegal. Just coming back from a trip to Seattle and seeing the popularity of growler fills at beer bars like The Uber Tavern, I can see how this practice could provide another stepping stone for the promotion of craft beer and be a benefit to the environment. I for one am glad the growler is here and am excited to see how it evolves along with the increased appreciation for craft beer.

Credit
Special thanks goes out to Greg Koch, Joe Mohrfeld and Matt Thrall for the email and telephone responses, Kellie Day who created the awesome growler art at the top of the article (check out kelliedayart.com), and the following websites that I borrowed pictures from: blog.beeriety.com and bike29.com.
BeerEric Steen