Though I find myself to be impartial to the differences between packaged beer and draft beer, there are many who feel draft beer is far superior. In many ways, they are right - fresher product, less chance of staleness, better storage - but those are the breaks for those of us who prefer drinking beer in the well-lighted confined of our own homes.
I, for one, prefer my beer while sitting on a couch. Probably while watching some horrible sports thing. And there are very few avenues in which we can experience the novelty of “draft-beer-on-a-couch”:
- Go to a bar with a couch. (These are actually becoming more common, but these couches aren’t MY couch, which is a very important point to make. They are leather, easily cleaned, and covered in an aura of “someone’s sat here before.”)
- Start homebrewing and begin kegging your own beer. (I know many people who do this, but this is not exactly an easy - or cheap - way of quenching one’s couch-based thirst.)
- Buy a growler.
Ha! You thought I was DONE talking about beer packaging, weren’t you? Joke’s on you!
The growler popped back into my mind this weekend when I discovered that Fogies Liquor Gallery - a west-side liquor store - actually sold growlers. Full growlers. As in, 64-ounce glass jugs filled with beer from the six taps behind the counter. This was the first time I’d ever seen a standard, off-sale liquor store providing growlers - typically, they are the domain of fancy bars and breweries. In fact, I could count the growler-providing bars on my one hand - Granite City, JL Beers and Monk’s - and still have two fingers left over.
(If there are other growler providers in town, please let me know in the comments. As you surely will.)
"Cool," you might say. "Big beer bottles."
"But what’s the point?"
The point is that not every beer gets the bottle treatment. Some beers only show up on tap. Some beers - like Boulevard’s 80-Acre or other super-hopped beers - are going to be much fresher (and much better) when pulled off a keg instead of sitting on a store shelf, its precious hop aroma slowly disintegrating into the bottle cap. And, simply put, it’s kind of fun to plunk down a big brown bottle of beer to share with a few friends.
On your couch. At home. In front of those horrible sports, even!
The history of the growler is disputed and thinly documented. According to several accounts on The Internet, where all great research is done, growlers began life in the late 1800s as small pails for bringing home beer. The sloshing sound made as CO2 escaped helped coin the phrase “growler,” probably because “slosher” had a much different connotation before the turn of the century.
I became more interested in the history of the growler after reading about Charlie and Ernie Otto - creator of the Otto Brothers Brewing Company which, in time, moved from Wilson, Wyoming to Driggs, Idaho and became Grand Teton Brewing Company. The story, as told by Grand Teton, is that the Ottos discovered a “long forgotten container” - a tin-pail growler - and reintroduced it in a 64-ounce glass jug. Thus the modern growler was reintroduced to the world.
This was in 1989, and while the brewery can claim the glass version, another brewery - William S. Newman Brewing Company in Albany - worked way back in the early 80s with brew boxes that they called a cubitainer, which we would call “the same thing cheap boxed wine comes in.” Because the beer was unpasturized, it had to be downed quickly. The cubitainers would then be refilled and the process would begin again.
Newman Brewing Company is no longer around, but you can still get cubitainers from Northern Brewer, if you’re so inclined. And the cubitainer is not alone in the field of non-standard growlers. Outside of the brown 64-ounce bottles, you can get growlers in all shapes and sizes. With a handle. Without a handle. With a fancy handle and a swing-top closure. They’re clear, which is both stupid and dangerous. They’re a half gallon. They’re a full gallon. Home brewers use them to pass out kegged homebrew. Breweries use them to send exotic tap-room-only beers into the wild.
Beer growlers are not perfect. In fact, they’re incredibly problematic - if you fill a growler at your local bar or brewhouse, you’re getting freshly carbonated beer that does nothing but get more and more flat as the days progress. Sure, if they’re filled correctly they’ll last up to 10 days (according to Beer Advocate) but that’s as long as you don’t open them. Growlers are obviously not for storing - they’re for bringing the party home, sharing a few brews with friends or giving yourself a new atmosphere for your favorite draft-only beers.
Brewers hate them. Or they love them. Or a little bit of both.
One thing can be certain, though - like so many other things about beer culture, growlers fit a certain aestetic that, regardless of its viability or quality, fits the craft brew movement. Few things feel more artisanal than popping open the top of an unmarked growler, pouring a pint for everyone in the room, and enjoying a communal glass of Whatever Was New From The Bar.
Just be careful you don’t spill on the couch. This one’s not made of leather.