Growlin’ For Beer
Growlers have been around for a long time. The unusual name dates back to the 1890s when New York City residents would carry draft beer from a bar to work or home using a half-gallon galvanized pail with a metal lid. The carbonation escaping under the lid made a purring or “growling” sound. Children were often given the task of delivering beer—“bucket boys” used a notched wooden pole to carry several pails at once.
Growlers disappeared after Prohibition but then reappeared as part of the modern-day craft brewing movement in the 1980s. They didn’t really take off in BC until more recently, but now, the refillable “mini-moonshine jugs” have become popular in communities around the province, following similar waves of interest in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
A standard 1.9-litre (half-gallon) glass growler in BC costs $5-$7 with fills usually priced at $10-$12, although specialty seasonal beers might cost more than that. Roughly equal in quantity to a six-pack or three 650-ml bottles, there is definitely a cost savings, especially compared to bombers which run in the $5-$8 range (or the equivalent of $15-$24 for the same quantity you get in a growler).
But the price is not the only reason people like them. In an informal poll I conducted online, 86% of respondents cited the “connection to the brewery” as the main reason why they buy beer in growlers. The economical price came second at 78%, and freshness was third at 71%. The environmental angle also scored high with 61% of respondents picking it as a reason. In terms of problems encountered with beer in growlers, 58% of people said they have never had a problem while 27% said the beer went flat too quickly. Only 6% of respondents cited “off flavours.”
Victoria was the first place in BC to really see an explosion in growler usage—mainly thanks to Phillips Brewing’s popular storefront growler station which features five beers available on tap six days a week. Most days it’s a stock set of the brewery’s regular lineup, but I check the Phillips twitter feed regularly because they occasionally put an unusual or seasonal beer on tap. The best example of this was last fall when they tweeted about a “surprise beer.” I headed down to the brewery and found out it wasn’t even their own beer, but rather Great Lakes Brewing’s incredible 25th Anniversary Porter which Great Lakes had left when their brewers came out west for the Great Canadian Beer Festival and to brew a collaboration beer at Phillips.
In addition to Phillips, most of the rest of Victoria’s breweries and brewpubs have popular and busy growler stations, including Hoyne Brewing, Spinnakers Brewpub and Vancouver Island Brewing. Driftwood fills growlers on a limited basis—just on Thursday and Friday afternoons—and Lighthouse Brewing will be opening a tasting room soon.
Growlers have also found great success in smaller communities around BC. As I reported here last July, Tofino Brewing found themselves overwhelmed with interest in growlers after their opening in 2011.Townsite Brewing, which I profiled here last August, followed Tofino’s lead when they opened in Powell River almost a year ago, but with an added twist: they pledged $1 from every growler fill would go to a local non-profit, with a monthly recipient voted on by customers. More than $6,000 has been raised in this manner since last April.
You can also fill growlers at Fernie Brewing, Cannery Brewing (Penticton), the Firehall Brewery (Oliver), the Longwood Brewpub (Nanaimo), the Noble Pig Brewhouse (Kamloops), and the Barley Station Brew Pub (Salmon Arm). Most of the brewpubs in the Lower Mainland fill growlers as well, and Crannóg Ales (Sorrento) sells them pre-filled.
Vancouver took longer to catch on to growlers, but that is changing quickly with the opening of three breweries last year that feature growlers prominently: Parallel 49 Brewing, Bridge Brewing and the Powell Street Craft Brewery. Bridge Brewing is a North Vancouver nanobrewery that only sells its beer in growlers (they also offer pre-filled growlers at the Edgemont Liquor Store). Powell Street, another nano, sells most of its beer through the growler station at the brewery, but they also bottle some of their beer in 650-ml bombers. Parallel 49 Brewing has a specialized counter-pressure filler that purges growlers with C02, reducing oxidation and spillage, and allowing them to be stored safely for weeks before opening. Otherwise, with a regular fill from an open tap, growlers generally should be consumed within a few days or else they might begin to exhibit off flavours.
Not all brewers like growlers because of the lack of quality control they have over the beer once it has been dispensed. They worry about oxidation, contamination and inconsistency in carbonation. But filling systems are improving, alleviating some of these concerns. And most regular growler users understand they are taking the “lives” of their beers into their own hands.
The future looks bright for growlers in BC. The BrassNeck Brewery, currently under construction in Vancouver, promises to be a growler-focused storefront operation that will offer a wide variety of constantly changing brews in multiple growler sizes. And in addition to the traditional glass jugs, ceramic and stainless-steel versions are coming on the market, as well as the vacuum-insulated Hydro Flask, deluxe Euro models with swing-top closures and metal handles, and even a special cap fitted with a C02 dispenser that will keep the beer inside carbonated longer. None of these is cheap: the Hydro Flask and Bräuler sell for $50 while ceramic models cost $65. Growlers have clearly come a long way from 100 years ago when the pail might cost 5¢ and the fill just 5¢-15¢!