By the time his growler collection reached 354 items, Mark Marnell had run out of space. On his travels across the country, the retired chemist had purchased the 64-ounce glass jugs at breweries, filled them with fresh beer and brought them home.
“They were stored in my kitchen on shelving that accommodated about 50 of them, as well as my full bar,” he says. “There was not enough room on the shelving for my growing Bourbon collection, so I decided to slim down. The balance of them were in my garage on shelving, and I needed additional space out there as well, so I got rid of most of them.”
He has since pared down his collection to around 100 growlers.
“The ones that I saved were special ones that were laser cut, classic breweries that I visited in the early ’90s and all the ones from the Hudson Valley that I have written about over the years, which I still may collect a few more of,” says Marnell.
Early versions of the growler date to the late 1800s and were sometimes covered galvanized-steel pails. Its name comes from the container itself, “which sometimes apparently rumbled with escaping carbonation [that] was dubbed a ‘growler,’ and the person carrying it was said to be ‘rushing the growler,’ ” writes Garrett Oliver in the Oxford Companion to Beer.
As U.S. craft beer culture evolved over the last three decades, many had a love/hate relationship with growlers. Some brewers, scientists and purists argue that growlers don’t keep beer fresh for very long and have dangerous potential. If a customer lets a filled growler get too warm, secondary fermentation can occur and cause the contents to explode from the pressure.
Others complain that breweries use growlers and their related packaging laws to upsell customers. In certain states, breweries are only permitted to fill growlers adorned with their logos and with a government consumption warning. This prohibits eco-minded and economical drinkers from reusing their jugs at different breweries.
Upcycling comes with its own concerns. Glass growlers have small openings that are difficult to clean. This promotes bacterial and mold growth, which leads to unpleasant experiences if refilled with fresh beer.
“[Growlers are] never a replacement for a beer that has been properly been filled from a packaging line,” says draft quality expert and independent brewer Neil Witte, who is also a lead trainer for the Cicerone beer-certification program. “The beer starts to break down pretty quickly when it’s just poured into a growler from the tap, so if you’re going to do it, make sure you’re going to drink it pretty quickly. These aren’t meant for long-term storage.”
The Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade association for small breweries, suggests consumers crack into their growlers within 24 to 72 hours and finish the beer that same day it’s opened for optimal freshness.
“Brewery studies show that beer quality begins to suffer almost immediately after filling,” reads a Brewers Association report. “Within 24 hours, carbonation, mouthfeel and the hallmark flavors of your favorite beer brand degrade, and within 72 hours, stale flavors become obvious.”
Despite these concerns, growlers have thrived as the number of U.S. breweries has grown over the last two decades. While most breweries fill growlers directly from taps, others install “growler machines” behind the bar that connect directly to their draft system.
To use these machines, a server inserts a fresh growler, or a 32-ounce “howler,” and then push a button for the desired draft beer. The device replaces the air in the bottle with CO2 and then fills it with beer. This minimizes the amount of oxygen in the container, discouraging spoilage. Breweries like Victory in Pennsylvania and the Iron Hill chain of brewpubs still use the machines.
In the last five years or so, however, growler machines have become far less common than seamers, which are used to reseal “crowlers,” or single-use, 32-ounce aluminum cans. These were introduced by Oskar Blues Brewery of Longmont, Colorado, in conjunction with the Ball Corporation in 2014. Lower cost and the increased popularity of aluminum cans helped stoke the surge.
Like growlers, crowlers should be opened within three days of being filled, and consumed within a few hours. The chief off-flavor that develops from a crowler that’s past its prime is oxidation, says Witte, which tastes like wet cardboard.
Glass growlers haven’t disappeared completely during the crowler era, of course. Some have found new life as decorations, while others have been adopted by kombucha drinkers.
There have been other runs at single-use vessels for to-go beer like a quart-sized, polyethylene-coated cardboard milk container called the Crafty Carton, with the catchy, Eddie Money-inspired advertising slogan “Take Me Home Two Pints.” It was brought to the U.S. by Luke Dolby in 2012, who partnered with industry publication Ale Street News for its launch.
“The take-home disposable carton has been part of the British pub for over 20 years, and I always feel proud when I see one of our cartons on sale there,” said Dolby during a 2012 interview.
Tony Forder, the editor of Ale Street News, says that the crafty carton was “used some in New Jersey, [though] there were a lot of snags in the production, largely to do with higher levels of CO2 in the beer than in the U.K. It was eventually taken on by a packaging company in [Connecticut], but they too couldn’t quite nail it…then, along came the crowlers.”
There has been a renewed interest in crowlers and growlers. With on-premise consumption in question due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, breweries are betting big on the formats.
In early April, the Ball Corporation announced it was temporarily out of stock of crowlers, and ramped up production to meet demand. In the meantime, brewing industry message boards were filled with pleas, cash orders and barters from their colleagues.
Meanwhile, many beer bars have offered steep discounts on growler refills. In late April, the Hopleaf bar in Chicago sold growlers of Anchor Steam for $10 and Revolution Straight Jacket Barleywine for $20 to bring in revenue and work through their stock.
Manufacturers of sturdier growlers, usually made of stainless steel, have also ratcheted up their marketing campaigns. Some of these growlers have wider openings to make cleaning easier, tops that can be screwed more tightly than their glass counterparts, or ports for CO2 regulators that keep beer fresh longer. Sizes range from a pint to a gallon.
These new growler producers don’t aim to just appeal to beer drinkers, either. Brian Sonnichsen, co-founder of GrowlerWerks, believes the vessels are also good for batched carbonated cocktails.
For some craft beer drinkers, growlers have a sentimental value. They’re reminiscent of favorite breweries or beer pilgrimages taken when travel was less fraught.
Max Finnance, an advanced cicerone and education and training manager at Artisanal Brewing Ventures, had collected 50 growlers and displayed them in a former apartment.
“When I moved out of there, it seemed silly to have boxes and boxes of glass in storage, so I only kept the ones I liked most,” he says. “I’ve been in my new house for about a year and a half now, and most of them are still in boxes in the basement, so I probably kept too many.”