One of the best feelings a person can have is to pick up a growler — a 64-ounce jug — of fresh beer from a local brewery.
It’s a beautiful sight to behold, and the promise of what lies within radiates. It’s a tradition that goes back generations, and one my father and grandfather used to talk about. As a preteen, my dad would be given a quarter and an empty metal bucket and sent to the corner bar. The bartender would fill it, and he would scurry back, trying not to spill any of the beer.
Why it became known as a growler has been long-theorized. I interviewed a Germantown native, Don Haag, a few years ago while researching a book project, and he described his childhood memories thusly: “I’ve always heard the explanation of why that was called a growler. One was, the lid would fit down on it tight, and when the kid was walking back, the beer would slosh around and the gas would build up. And it would make growling sound.”
The other possible origin makes sense as well: “If [the kid] spilled it, [the dad] would growl.”
But with the rise of craft beer, availability is at an all-time high. Cans are replacing bottles as the go-to vessel. And in recent years, the “crowler” — a 32-ounce can that can be filled and sealed on the spot — has risen in usage and popularity.
You see, the key drawback of a growler is that you have to drink it quickly. And once it is unsealed, the contents will remain drinkable for maybe a day, so there isn’t much time. (Some would argue this is a good thing, because you can drink your entire growler under the pretense you don’t want to be wasteful.)
Does the growler have a future?
Local brewers believe so. But there are factors that may threaten it. One of those is quality control — if a patron brings in his or her own growler to fill, what if it isn’t properly sanitized? Then, the beer gets infected and tastes strange, and that patron becomes an ex-patron. Light getting into the beer through the walls of a glass growler also can affect flavor.
And if growler sales at remote locations experience quality control issues (dirty lines, etc.), it is completely out of the brewery’s control, which can be a PR/perception problem. And yet, the positives continue to balance, if not outweigh, the negatives — so says Falls City Brewing Co. president Drew Johnson.
“They’re a great way to share beer,” he said. “I don’t think they will be phased out by crowlers. I see them working in tandem.”
For example, if you’re going to party and want to share beer, the growler is more immediate and economical, since discounts on growler fills typically are better than crowler fills. But if, say, you want to take home a crowler or two for consumption during the big game the following weekend, the crowler is going to stay fresh far longer.
Apocalypse Brew Works sells both crowlers and growlers, and both have gone over well.
“For us, the growler is still popular, especially for those folks who see it as an eco-friendly option, since you refill them,” brewer and co-owner Leah Dienes said. “Others like the portability of the crowler since it’s a can, and since it’s 32 ounces, they can try different beers without making a half-gallon commitment.”
Also, she noted, some people collect growlers from the various breweries they visit.
Mile Wide Beer Co. is the one brewery in Louisville that doesn’t offer growler sales, instead offering only crowlers for customers wanting beer to take home. Scott Shreffler, co-owner of Mile Wide, cited the aforementioned quality concern as a primary reason, but not the only one.
“The convenience that crowlers present for our customers is a huge reason we chose to go with that format,” Shreffler said. “Because all of our Crowlers are pre-filled every day before we open, you can swing by on your way home from work, or on your way to a party, and grab a few in a matter of minutes. You don’t have to worry about whether you remembered your growler, or whether it’s clean. Just come in, pick up your beer, and go.”
But while Mile Wide has no plans to sell growler fills anytime soon, Shreffler also doesn’t necessarily expect the growler to go extinct, either.
“It’s tough to say exactly what the future holds for the growler,” he said. “There will likely always be a place for them in this industry, because they’ve been a part of the craft beer experience for so long. And quite simply, people love their growlers.”