Perhaps you’ve seen it at your local bar: a brown-tinted jug being filled by the bartender straight from the draught lines. Maybe you’ve given the system a try to take home a few pints of your favorite beer as well. Growler programs — in bars and craft beer stores — are growing at an alarming rate. But if you choose to partake in them, there are a few things to know and understand.
Growlers are reusable glass jugs (typically 64-ounce or 32-ounce) for transporting beer “to go” from on-premise and off-premise retail locations. It is generally agreed that the name “growler” comes from the late 19th century, when people would walk home from the pub with a pail of beer taken directly from the tap or cask. The carbon dioxide from the carbonation would escape out of the bucket lid and growl, thus coining the term “growler.” Because they are reusable and generate no trash, growlers are considered an environmentally conscious option for selling beer. They also require less energy and water to fill than with bottling or canning.
Once beer leaves a brewery it is up to the distributor, and subsequently the point-of-sale establishments, to treat beer in a way that they can serve consumers beer in absolute optimal condition – using clean draught lines, proper storing/serving temperatures, and appropriate clean and rinsed glassware. With just these few variables, it’s challenging enough as hitting all three of those marks simply doesn’t happen for many venues. However, growler programs introduce variables on top of those. And with these additional variables, the odds of experiencing a beer with the complete integrity as its brewer had intended are considerably lessened.
In an ideal beer universe, a growler and its cap is thoroughly cleaned and sterilized prior to filling and in between each fill every time without fail. And when filling a growler, it should be purged with CO2 prior to filling with any beer to remove any oxygen. This prevents oxygenating the beer while filling. Using counter-pressure ensures that headspace in the growler is solely CO2, further reducing the chances of oxidation if stored for any amount of time. Beer reacts poorly to oxygen, as oxidized beer tastes of wet cardboard or paper.
Many growler programs have a policy of only filling growlers that have their establishment’s logo on them. In theory, this enables the growler establishment to have a surplus of clean growlers on hand that they know are absolutely clean and sterilized, with which they can simply trade the consumer at each visit. That said, more often than not growler program establishments accept the consumer’s word that their growler has been cleaned and will simply fill it without a proper inspection, cleaning and rinse. Bartenders could inspect and sanitize every growler that they fill, but if it’s significantly busy, what is their incentive to take the time to do so when there are 10 people waiting for single pints that will each tip? To reduce the variables, it’s up to you to treat your growler right!
While many off-premise beer stores use carbon dioxide with their growler systems (such as Beer Table Pantry and Bierkraft in Brooklyn), many do not, and bars with growler programs simply do not have the means to purge growlers with CO2. Consequently, growlers poured from places that do not purge or fill the headspace with CO2 will have an extremely short shelf life — they only stay fresh for a matter of days. So drink it fast in that case, and ask the establishment if they might think about adding this capacity in the future.
I have a brewer friend who likens growler programs to getting food “to go” from your favorite restaurant rather than dining in: You walk in, ask for their chef’s best dish, have it put immediately in a doggie bag, spend a night out on the town with the food in your bag, go home, toss the food in the refrigerator, and eat it three days later after reheating (overheating or under-heating) it in the microwave. A meal after such an adventure is certainly a different dish than that which the chef brought out. Needless to say, with this viewpoint (a very valid one) he is thoroughly opposed to growler programs and he is not alone in the brewing community.
Growlers have certain advantages, though. Many breweries offer several beers throughout the year only available on draught rather than in bottles or cans; some only offer beers on draught, period. For someone who doesn’t go to bars too often but still wants to try a wide range of craft beers, growlers offer a fantastic privilege. It also allows small breweries to share their beer to a wider range of people.
So let’s make sure growler programs stay a privilege, to be respected by all parties; that happens by treating your growlers right.
· To keep it fresh, clean and thoroughly rinse before and after every use. Sanitize if possible.
· Drink filled growlers ASAP.
· Do not re-seal a growler; drink your growler all at once (yourself or with friends).
· Frequent vendors that purge and/or use counter-pressure to fill growlers.
· Understand and accept that the beer in your growler may be a slightly different liquid than the brewer had intended. Avoid rating the beer in public forums.
In essence, enjoy growlers to the fullest by reducing the variables. Drink responsibly and have fun!
This month’s Open Mic contributor is our friend Chris Cuzme. Chris is the President Emeritus of both the New York City Homebrewers Guild and the Malted Barley Appreciation Society, a co-founder of the New York City Degustation Advisory Team, and a co-organizer/founder of Get Real Presents. He was also instrumental in the organization of NYC Craft Beer Week and co-founded the Wandering Star Brewery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he is a Partner and NYC Sales Rep. Chris is also an accomplished jazz saxophonist (which he usually lists first). Today, he tackles the topic of how and why to properly use growlers for keeping and transporting beer.