Growlers: The Next Generation

Authored by Jack Curtain. Reprinted with permission. Jan/Feb 2014 The New Brewer

There are ceramic growlers that are works of art and there are growlers that support the planet.

It would be way beyond hyperbolic to refer to this as “the age of the growler,” but hyperbole, like gossip, is always grounded in truth. There’s no denying that what was once just a humble glass jug has become one of the hottest topics in the craft beer world. We seem to have arrived, almost overnight, in a world where the traditional images of a 64-ounce amber, green, or clear glass container with a small handle at the neck, or a tall German-style two-liter flip-top with a large and often ornate metal handle, tell but a part of the tale. Those are still the two prevalent and most popular forms, but these days you can buy or sell growlers that are plastic, cardboard, or, the most expensive but increasingly popular option, stainless steel. There are ceramic growlers that are works of art and there are growlers that support the planet. There are even growlers that are not growlers at all.

Mark Anthony Badal is founder of Oregon’s Bottless.net, a web-based company specializing in providing custom containers to the craft beverage industry. “We probably offer the widest variety of growlers in the world,” said Badal. “Pretty much anything we introduce these days takes off without any advertising or promotion; we just do a couple of email blasts and website posts and the orders start coming in.”

Bottless added a 64-ounce stainless mini-keg retailing at $36 last fall and shipped out 160 samples; it sold 6,000 of them immediately. “Contemporary buyers like variety, and different shapes and styles of bottles catch their attention,” said Badal. “Manufacturers are beginning to add 32-ounce containers to their inventories and there’s a lot of interest in that size as well as for the 64-ounce and one- or two-liter sizes that have been selling all along.”

Badal and other wholesalers agree that insulated stainless steel growlers are taking off as brewers discover that significantly higher prices do not appear to be a problem for their customers. Hydro Flask, the water bottle company, has emerged as the major player in that market segment with its double-walled, vacuum-insulated growler, after confronting and solving some problems that developed when the product first launched in June 2010.

Vice president of sales Charlie Ortega explained, “Our initial version had some issues with the pressure of carbonation and the threading pattern and thread design, so we did a lot of design changes. We made the thread pattern higher by an extra thread, improved the cap and the gasket inside, and now we’re selling version 2.2. It has just been amazing as far as performance goes. We’ve had less than .01 percent of anything being returned for a leakage problem or cap issue.”

Hydro Flask sold 24,000 units in 2012 and had doubled that figure as of the end of October last year. The company plans to release a 32-ounce mini-growler in January. Ortega pointed to Mountain Sun Brewing Co. as an example of a brewery that was hesitant about Hydro Flask’s $50 suggested retail price, noting that, after quickly selling through a small 26-unit initial order, the Colorado-based brewer came back for a more normal-sized order of 144 growlers and had excellent results.

“We did a Facebook notice before releasing that shipment at all three of our locations,” reports Mountain Sun’s director of brewery operations John Fiorilli, “and were sold out in a matter of days. Subsequent orders have not gone as quickly, but they continue to sell well; we sold about 750 Hydro Flasks from March through October last year.” Tony Ren, general manager at Maui Brewing Co., has had similar results. “Hydro Flask is a pretty simple sell for us in Hawaii. An insulated growler that will keep beer cold on the beach without having to lug an icebox around is very appealing. We’ve gained a lot of ground using those growlers and I also see more and more of them come in with other breweries’ logos on them, so they seem to be doing well everywhere.”

Bells and Whistles

Although some suppliers report problems in getting reorders filled, there is a lot of interest in The Bräuler, a modular stainless steel growler system created by The Zythos Project, a team of engineer Harvey Claussen, industrial designer James Andrew, and beer writer Christian DeBenedetti in Portland, Ore. The third generation should be available at this point, employing for the first time the company’s patented FreshCap, which has a CO2 cartridge that fits into the bottle neck and injects CO2 into the unit. This final stage in its development was funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The Bräuler was designed with input from top brewmasters around the U.S., say its founders, and has a suggested retail price of $59.95. “We have received a lot of requests for 32-ounce and two-gallon sizes,” says Claussen, perhaps giving a hint about generation four of the product.

The Brew-Tek Growler, a new entry into the stainless steel segment, was scheduled to begin sales by the end of 2013 and will be formally introduced at the 2014 Craft Brewers Conference in Denver this April. It takes a somewhat similar approach with its DrinkFresh lid, which has a Schrader valve built into it. “The Schrader valve is pretty standard (most bike tires, inner tubes, etc.), which means it will be easy for folks to attach a compatible valve to it to inject CO2,” says sales and marketing director Norm Vogele. Brew-Tek is a China-based company run by an American team, and has a distribution office based in Pasadena, Calif. However, it has not yet debuted in the American market. “We had a few early adopters in Australia, Singapore, and China after we attended BeerFest Asia and Good Beer Week in Australia, and we are just getting underway with our American production run, and hope to have some additional early adopters working with us soon,” said Vogele. “We are huge fans of growler culture, so we are attempting to premiere the best growler product at a competitive price.”

Another option, the LifeLine Fifty/Fifty, a double-wall, vacuum-insulated stainless steel growler offered through PineMeadow Green in Oregon, definitely catches the eye with a $39.95 suggested retail price, and Bill Bragg, retailing manager at Pennsylvania’s Weyerbacher Brewing Co., admits that’s influencing his choice. “We sell a skid of growlers every three months and are looking at stainless steel. I own a Fifty/Fifty that I bought at Oskar Blues in North Carolina. And I’m leaning in that direction in part because of price, but also because they will screen print around the entire growler.”

Guy Mount, president of PineMeadow Green, says that the company’s decorating process is a big selling point. “We can screen print up to four colors and, on our black growlers, we offer laser engraving which gives a really rich and striking character to the bottle.” The company rolled out a second version last fall that was taller and narrower than the first, and was scheduled to offer another variation with a $19.95 suggested retail price in January.

A Growler Culture

Glass dominates and stainless steel is coming on, but plastic growlers are a tougher sell, with questions of durability, the potential for explosion due to excess CO2, and the perceived danger of BPA seepage. One plastic proponent, Brent Corbin of Indiana’s Tap Room Supply, has built a solid base with a 32-ounce PET container called The Bullet. He points out that “it isn’t possible for PET bottles to be made with BPA, so that’s really not an issue.” He says customers “like The Bullet from the cost and recycling standpoints and it’s an ideal product for those who enjoy an active lifestyle because it fits perfectly in the water bottle cage of bicycles and the side pockets of backpacks. We are in 60 breweries right now, all the way up to Alaska, and just entered the California market in late October. The bottle sells itself. As soon as it gets into one city with one brewery, other breweries get interested right away.”

While the glass and stainless steel growler world has become more focused on 32-ounce alternatives of late, Corbin had been anxiously awaiting a move in the other direction until last November when a 64-ounce PET bottle arrived on the market. “I’d been waiting for this for two years,” he says. “The nice thing about it is that the neck finish is the same circumference as the standard 64-ounce growler so it is easier to fill and pour and considerably cheaper than glass. It certainly should allow us to expand our customer base.”

All these alternatives and styles are helping create a growler culture that extends beyond the enjoyment of fresh beer. For example, take MiiR, a Seattle-based water bottle company started by entrepreneur Bryan Papé in 2009. During his research, Papé found statistics that showed that one billion people around the world lack access to clean water, one of the world’s leading causes of death. The company now makes a stainless steel 64-ounce growler with a threadless clamp top and contributes enough money from each sale to keep one person in the world with clean water for a week. The “Growler for Good” comes with a unique tracking bracelet that has a printed ID number that purchasers can track on the MiiR site six months to a year later to learn which water project their growlers helped support.

New York’s KegWorks is a source for a lot of “fun” growlers such as the Chalkboard Growler, a 64-ounce amber jug with a green chalkboard surface on the front in the shape of a large label, enabling the owner to write down such vital information as the date it was filled and where. The company is also a source for a range of other growlers and growler paraphernalia such as tote bags and wooden growler carriers. “When I first started homebrewing, growlers were only used in small circles of hardcore beer geeks,” said KegWorks’ draft beer expert Peter Milkie. “Now they’re everywhere.”

One of the more intriguing recent concepts is the Crafty Carton, a growler that is not a growler at all. Luke Dolby, the son of England’s G.N. Packaging’s founders, who brought the concept to the U.S. in 2012, stressed that, “The Crafty Carton is a 32-ounce container which is a transit device, not a carbonation product designed for long-term storage. We want to run alongside a growler program, not replace it. The Carton is designed for an impulse buyer, someone who decides at the last minute to take beer home and doesn’t want to purchase a big glass jug. A perfect example would be a husband and wife who each prefer the beer they have been enjoying at the bar. They can buy both, drink their chosen beers at home, and toss the empties into the recyclable bin.”

Crafty Cartons were originally imported from England but production was moved to Keystone Paper & Box Co. in Connecticut early last November. “We’ve made the unit taller to account for the higher carbonation level in U.S. beers, improved the seal so that it meets standards for a sealed liquor container, and built in a handle,” Dolby notes. He says the line is already selling well to a mix of customers around the country (“very large breweries, mom and pop liquor stores, restaurant and hotel chains”) and that bartenders appreciate its user-friendliness. “Cartons can be stacked one inside the other, taking up very little space in bars and retail outlets that have limited sales and display areas. I’d guess you could put 30 into the same space occupied by a single growler and you can keep a stack right next to the cash register.” Crafty Cartons in boxes of 100 cost about 40 cents each.

Fill ‘Em Up

The popularity of growlers and concerns about beer quality and eliminating the expensive waste of overflowing beer going down the drain during hand-filling has inspired the development of some impressive filling systems. The most expensive and technologically advanced such equipment possibly comes from Austrian manufacturer Alfred Gruber: a fully automatic counter-pressure filling machine with an integrated outside cleaner that can run up to 20 different styles. The original unit was created in 2008 when Ron Barchet, co-founder and brewmaster at Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing Co., approached Gruber and asked them to create a system that could fill two-liter flip-top German growlers. Nearby breweries Tröegs, Sly Fox, and Iron Hill soon followed (“Once you see it, you have to have it,” says Sly Fox brewmaster Brian O’Reilly) and there are now others in place at breweries around the country.

This past fall, Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewing Co. became the first U.S. brewer to install the newest Gruber version, one that splits the 20 taps into 10 on either side, thus allowing the filling of two growlers simultaneously or, if a particular beer is in high demand, readily adds a second keg of that brew in place of one of the other styles to keep things moving along. Maryland laws did not allow breweries to fill growlers before July 1 last year and the Gruber unit went online two months later in mid-September. “Several of our growler fill customers have become regulars as a result and growler sales overall have increased considerably,” said Emily Wardrick, tasting room manager. Flying Dog plant operations manager Mark Matovich points out that speed is not the only benefit of the system. “We had a guy take a growler home the first day it went online and he kept it in his refrigerator for five weeks before opening it. When he did, the beer was just as fresh as it was when the growler was filled. That’s the sort of performance that will bring customers back again and again.”

A more affordable, but not automated, filling system is the Pegas CrafTap. “It is basically a bottling line dialed down to a single unit,” explains John O’Connell, who is in charge of business development for the company which, in addition to selling to the brewing industry and individuals who want to open their own businesses, operates a Growler Station chain and maintains Growler Station Express kiosks in convenience and grocery stores.

CrafTap is a shelf-top counter-pressure system about 28 inches in height that uses a four-beer-line manifold. “We developed the filler working with our manufacturing partner out of Russia,” O’Connell says, “and we currently have CrafTaps being used by roughly 100 breweries around the country.” O’Connell says the not-unusual situation where one technological advance conflicts with another is something they are dealing with. “Since the operator needs a sight line to see when the growler is filled, CrafTap is not currently compatible with stainless steel growlers. We are working with Hydro Flask to develop a transparent cap that would fit on top of the flask and secure into our unit to provide that visibility. It would be adjustable to other stainless steel growlers as well and we hope to be able to launch it at the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference.”

Dennis Walsak of Tote Glass, a Pennsylvania-headquartered wholesaler specializing in two-liter flip-tops (“I honestly believe that we import more Wassman growlers from Germany and sell them to a wider range of customers than anyone else in the country,” he says), has come up with a device that deals with the proper filling issue right at the top of the bottle itself. “Our Tapping Device has a long plastic hose which goes into the bottle and clips in under the hinge point of the lid and clamps onto the bottle itself on the other side of the opening. It has an adjustable on/off valve and hand squeeze pump to gently add pressure to the top of the beer, and that pressure forces beer out through the hose at the bottom. The result is you get a nice clear pour without adding a lot of oxygen and, if the beer is bottle-conditioned, you don’t stir up a lot of sediment. I sell a lot of them, but people do think they look kind of ridiculous.”

Homebrewer Robert Scott has more expansive plans for solving what he calls the “Achilles heel” of the growler. Using a Kickstarter campaign to provide the necessary funding, he launched his TapIt Cap in December. The cap is screwed in place of the standard one on a glass growler immediately after it is filled and uses a CO2 dispenser and pressure release valve to maintain the proper internal pressure. “A growler should last two weeks, maybe longer if it’s filled with a counter-pressure filler instead of by hand,” he claims. “I don’t know specifically because I don’t have the willpower to leave a half-filled growler in my refrigerator for two weeks.”

A final note: part of the shifting growler gestalt appears to be a lot more brewers running prefill programs. Mike Simmons, brewmaster at Nimble Hill, a new brewery/winery combo in Northeastern Pennsylvania, uses a CrafTap system to have a cooler of prefilled growlers on hand. At Back East Brewing Co. in Connecticut and Ghost River Brewing Co. in Tennessee, brewers employ Blichmann Beer Guns for prefills because they can also do CO2 purges with them. They are three among many. An unscientific poll on the topic (i.e., a post on the BA Forum) produced a wave of response with arguments for and against prefilling, more input than we have the space to deal with here. It is, perhaps, another story for another time.