Drinking on the Last Frontier: Growlers — New style, old idea

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell

With the rapid expansion of craft breweries and brewpubs across Alaska and the rest of the country, a new word has entered our everyday speech — growler. Yet while this word may seem new to us, it’s actually quite old.

Originally, the term referred to a galvanized or enameled steel pail with a lid. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, prior to home refrigeration, most people had to purchase their beer from a saloon, even if they wanted to consume it at home. The growler was the means by which a family member, often a woman or a child, would carry the beer from the saloon to their home.

This was referred to as “rushing the growler,” and was so common that many pre-Prohibition saloons had small service windows — nicknamed euphemistically the “family entrance” — to allow growlers to be filled without the woman or child actually entering the saloon proper. It’s thought that the actual name “growler” was derived from the rumbling sound of carbonation escaping by lifting the pail’s lid on the way home.

The images of children rushing beer home to their parents from saloons (and possibly sampling it along the way) were frequently cited by the anti-alcohol crusaders of the Anti-Saloon League. When the ASL finally succeeded in imposing Prohibition on America, it spelled the end of the growler’s original incarnation.

Even when repeal came, the days of children carrying pails of beer home never returned, and soon the development of home refrigeration and canned beer removed the need to transport beer from bar to home. The growler, it seemed, had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Until craft beer came along.

With the growing popularity of craft beer in the early 1980s, people once again wanted to be able to take draft beer home. This was critical to brewery sales, since many craft beers were only available on draft. The growler was reincarnated as a 64-ounce glass jug, one that did not growl, thanks to its tight-fitting screw top. Once again, beer lovers could enjoy their favorite draft-only brews at home, and brewers could reap additional sales. However, popular as it is, the new growler has several problems.

First, it is made of glass. Glass is fragile and relatively heavy. Anyone who has ever had a full growler slip out of his or her hands and shatter on the floor can attest to just what a horrendous mess that creates. Second, even the amber glass, of which most growlers are made, is not completely opaque, subjecting the beer inside to the risk of being light-struck, i.e., chemically damaged by the UV rays from natural or artificial light. Third, once a growler is opened, the beer inside must be consumed quickly, before the beer within goes flat and begins to oxidize. These challenges have led some beer lovers to try to design a better growler.

At present, there are two main contenders in the second-generation of growlers (or perhaps the third, if you count pre-Prohibition pails): the Hydro Flask and the Brauler.

The Hydro Flask is a double-wall, vacuum-insulated 18/8 stainless steel bottle that carries a lifetime warranty. It comes in various sizes, including the popular 64-ounce, wide-mouth growler. Since these growlers are essentially big Thermos bottles, they are excellent at keeping the contents at the desired temperature, be that hot or cold. This obviously comes in handy in Alaska, where we spend as much time worrying about not having our beer freeze as people in the Lower 48 do about keeping it cool. The downside of the Hydro Flask growler is that its lid is not particularly great at making a tight seal, so beer in one often goes flat.

The Brauler is produced by The Zythos Project, a group of beer-geek engineers in Portland, Ore., that set out to design the ultimate growler. They also used food-grade stainless and a wide mouth, but in a single-wall design. Their real genius is in the cap, which is big and well designed, ensuring an excellent seal every time. They have also developed a different cap, which has an integral gas port, allowing the Brauler to be pressurized externally with a carbon dioxide cartridge. Using it, you could drink half the beer, then re-cap and re-pressurize it to keep the remaining beer in your Brauler from going flat.

The Hydro Flask is available online, while the Brauler is only available through participating breweries. In Alaska, those are Kodiak Island Brewing Company and HooDoo Brewing Company in Fairbanks. Either option retails for about $50.
If you are ready to get serious about how you bring your craft beer home, those are your options from which to choose. Check them out and make your choice.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. He and his wife, Elaine, have released a book, “Beer on the Last Frontier: The Craft Breweries of Alaska —Volume I: Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island Breweries,” via Amazon.


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