Monday, July 27, 2015

Am I The Only One Not Enamored With Growlers?

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If you’re even remotely familiar with the craft beer scene in the last few years, no doubt you’re aware of the existence of “growlers”: large glass containers used for short-term storage and transportation of draught beer. It’s an interesting hybrid of packaged beer and fresh beer to say the least. Growler stations have been so popular even supermarkets and gas stations have begun installing a few lines. It’s great to see craft beer going mainstream.

That being said, I can’t help but scratch my head at the mass appeal of growlers. It’s not that I’m against their existence or judging people that use and enjoy them; just that I don’t understand how and why they become so popular, for the following reasons:

The standard size growler is 64oz (they also come in 32oz and 16oz, but they’re less common) – that’s a half gallon, or the equivalent of four 16oz pints or five and a third 12oz bottles. That’s a lot of beer, actually. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that growlers are intended for group settings where they’ll be shared: parties, picnics, camping trips, etc. But since you get less than a six-pack’s worth of beer in the standard growler fill, why not just buy an actual six-pack? I don’t know of any beers that are less expensive via growler than they are via six-pack. In fact, there seems to be a certain cache to the growler-fill that’s lost on packaged beer. I’ve seen growler prices go as high as $30 or $40 for premium, high gravity brews that are reasonably priced if you get them in 12oz or 22oz containers. I suppose there’s a freshness quality to growlers, since kegs are much more likely to not have sat around a distributor’s warehouse for months, but is that really worth paying a premium for? Seeing as how popular growlers are, I guess it is for some people.

A growler has a short shelf life, especially compared with bottles and cans that are sealed at the brewery. Theoretically, a bottle or can should stay carbonated indefinitely (whether or not it’ll still taste good is another story). There are some fancy plastic caps you can buy which form a better seal than the usual metal caps, but they won’t stay bubbly forever. So a growler is a bit of ticking time bomb – you need to drink it fast before it goes flat. Now, if you’re going straight from the beer store to the party that won’t be a problem, but what about when you’re just bringing a growler home for casual consumption? For a single person like me, trying to drink 64oz in a few days is a challenge. Even for a married couple or a few roommates living together, 64oz might be a lot. I can’t help but wonder how much beer is wasted due to going flat in growlers. Is there any empirical data on this?

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The growler station at Westmere Beverage. (Photo credit: facebook.com/westmerebeverage)

Most of the taps at a typical growler station feature beers that are available in bottles and cans. However, some do offer tap-only releases from small breweries that only keg their beers anyway. I can certainly understand the appeal of getting a growler fill of a beer where that’s the only way to enjoy it at home. That being said, if you’re buying a growler at anywhere other than the brewery itself, it’s a bit of a gamble as to how much you’ll enjoy it if you’ve never had it before. Additionally, if it’s from a local brewery, why not avoid the middleman and just get the growler filled there? Even better – why not just go to their taproom (assuming they have one) and sample their entire lineup via a flight or drink a full pint?

In my experience, growlers are like clothes and books: they accumulate around my house and I can’t bring myself to simply throw them away. I often try to give them away but no one ever seems to want a free growler (I’ll even put this theory to test: the growlers in the picture below are free for the taking – if anyone wants them let me know. I’ll be curious to see if anyone takes me up on my offer). That leads me to believe that the majority of people buy a brand new growler instead of re-using an old one. I’m no tree hugger, but that doesn’t seem environmentally sound to me.

Additionally, how are you supposed to dispose of old glass growlers?  They don’t have a deposit on them like bottles and cans, so there’s no financial incentive to recycle them. I guess everyone tosses them in the trash, which is a shame because those containers are so much more practical than the typical one-time-only-use product that ends up in the garbage (or a recycling bin if your community offers that service, though many don’t accept glass).

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Growlers are like clothes hangars: they just seem to multiply on their own.

Lastly, do I need to point out the fragility of glass growlers and how, if they break, can be extremely dangerous?

CROWLERS

Recently, my beer store of choice – Westmere Beverage – became the first bottle shop in the area to offer the new “crowler.” What is a crowler? It’s the same concept as a growler – draught beer dispensed to go, but in a 32oz can. This is an interesting concept since we all know cans are inherently superior to bottles at protecting beer from light and oxygen, so surely a crowler is superior to a growler, right? But there’s a catch: crowlers are intended for single usage. There’s no way to remove the lid and re-fill it, so once it’s empty you’re left with no choice but to throw it away or recycle it.

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Jeremy Hosier of Westmere Beverage unveiling the new crowler machine. (Photo credit: troyrecord.com)

I’ll be curious to see how popular the crowler becomes; both locally and nationally. But, it won’t be the first container to challenge the growler’s status quo, another device known as The Beer Bag was launched a few years ago. It’s a plastic pouch with a recloseable cap; essentially just a soft growler (there’s one in the picture with my growler collection). I believe these were actually created and marketed by The Ruck in Troy. But from what I can tell, they seem to have stopped selling Beer Bags. The domain name expired and the Facebook page has not been updated in over a year. Additionally, the product is listed as sold out on The Ruck’s merchandise page. I’m not sure if these bags came in different sizes, though the one I have appears to be identical to the one in the link listed above, but it is nowhere near 64oz. It’s closer to 22oz (I tested it by filling an empty bomber with water and then poured it into the Beer Bag). I don’t think I’ve ever actually used it, though. Has anyone? If so please let me know in the comments.

THE PROBLEM WITH CROWLERS AND BEER BAGS

Clearly, crowlers and Beer Bags have a leg-up on growlers. The fact they’re not made from glass means they can go where glass can’t (Saratoga Race Course, for example). But it raises a question I’ve yet to hear anyone answer: what are you going to use to drink the beer? If you’re using a crowler or a Beer Bag at a place where glass is forbidden, this means you can’t bring pint glasses to pour the beer into. That means you’re stuck with using plastic cups like the classic red Solo cup usually associated with Beer Pong (not that there’s anything wrong with a good game of Beer Pong). That means more garbage, but it also means you’re drinking beer from a damn plastic cup! Have you ever drank craft beer from a Solo cup? It just doesn’t taste the same. The thing about glass is that it’s neutral-tasting, which is why it’s been the most popular drinking vessel for a long time. Plastic and ceramic glasses all have a bit of a taste to them that can be at best distracting and at worse render the beer undrinkable. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m above drinking beer out of plastic cups.

But Chad, you’ll drink beer straight from the can! It tastes like metal that way!

No, it doesn’t, actually. Aluminum cans have a thin plastic coating so that the beer never actually touches the metal. Also, I don’t actually taste metal when I drink from the can. I’m not sure if the lid is coated as well or if aluminum has a neutral taste or if I’m just used to it, but I never taste anything other than the beer when I drink from the can. However, all things being equal I’ll always prefer to drink beer from a glass.

Like I said in the beginning, I didn’t intend for this blog to poo-poo growlers and people who use and like them. Just that I’m asking for insight: can those of you who like growlers please explain to me why, when and how often you use them? I’d love to know. Thanks!