A growler is a refillable glass bottle, usually 64 ounces in size, that can be filled at a brewery with fresh, local beer.
In most cases, the purchaser either pays once for the glass vessel (or pays a deposit) and then separately for the fill of whatever beer they’d like to take home. Growlers can be washed and reused an unlimited amount of times. The container is sealed with a special type of cap to preserve the carbonation, and the vessels can be stored unopened for a few weeks after filling.
Craft beer fans who have sought out local beer since the revival of the industry in the early 1990s are probably very familiar with these containers, and they were staples at beer-geek gatherings. Newer beer drinkers, however, may be less likely to have had one filled, in part due to the rapid availability of affordable packaging options for small breweries that are beginning to eclipse the growler’s popularity.
Would-be brewery owners are faced with a dilemma when coming up with their business plans: How can they afford to both produce enough beer and get the beer into people’s hands? The most common is to keg the beer, so that their products can be poured at local bars and restaurants (and, more recently, in the brewery’s own tap room). Unfortunately, that ever-more-crowded competition for tap space means there is not a guarantee that the beer will always be flowing. New breweries have an immediate and real need to meet customers’ “off-premise” beer needs and give them some kind of package that they can bring home. Expensive and space-consuming bottling and canning lines were often not a remote possibility for breweries, especially those that were small or had limited floor space to dedicate to packaging.
Enter the growler – the ultimate stopgap. Little to no equipment is needed. They can be filled with a nozzle directly from a tap line. And the only thing that takes up space are the containers themselves, so the brewery need not have thousands on hand since they are returned by the customers who have had them previously filled.
Their biggest benefit is still unrivaled by other packaging methods, however. They can be filled with any beer on tap, on demand, and consumed as fresh as possible. There’s no mystery about how the beer was treated between the brewery and your glass, and brewers can get their beer to consumers no matter how small of a batch they have brewed.
Growlers are not without downsides, however. In Maine, you can only fill a growler at a brewery that is labeled as belonging to that brewery. You can’t, for example, bring a Flight Deck Brewing growler and get it filled at Rising Tide. If you’re into variety and trying new beer, that quickly adds up to a lot of space dedicated to the decorated vessels.
While they are easy to fill, there’s an issue that can pop up when they need to be refilled. Breweries may refuse or need to replace growlers when they are brought back without being cleaned, or invest in cleaning equipment specifically for them. If you ever want to test your gag reflex, ask brewers what was in the dirtiest growler they’ve ever had returned to them. As with any glass container, they are also heavy, take a while to get cold and are not completely light-blocking.
An answer to glass was supposed to be the “crowler” (can plus growler, get it?). A crowler essentially is a large, on-demand can that can be filled at the brewery and then sealed with a tool that resembles a reverse electric can opener. Unlike their glass equivalents, these containers are opaque, preventing the skunking culprit – sunlight – from damaging the beer, and can last longer if properly sealed. There’s also no re-use (though they are recyclable), so cleaning is not an issue that brewers have to confront.
Until this year, it was nearly impossible to find a small brewery that didn’t open with some type of growler/crowler option as opposed to individual serving-size packaging, but that is changing. What has really begun to kill the growler is the presence of cheap, affordable and smaller-scale canning operations. At the grand opening of Definitive Brewing Co. – Portland (and Maine’s) newest brewery for now – all four of its beers were available to purchase in 16-ounce cans, with not a growler in sight.
For those of us who love the growler format, the decline of its popularity may have arrived at a shocking pace, and we may mourn as breweries step away from them as a packaging option. Small-scale canning (and appropriate date coding) has stepped in as an apt replacement and shouldn’t prevent beer fans from picking up the latest and freshest beer after the age of the growler comes to an end.