Beer enthusiasts can be a touchy bunch. The inexorable rise of the microbrewery, and selling craft drafts to discerning drinkers, has spawned an industry of self-styled ‘beer sommeliers’, always quick to point out the rich complexities of the latest brews to anyone who will listen. They tend towards an air of defensiveness that wine experts shed many vintages ago.
So it’s no surprise that the latest squabble within the beer community has not only come to a head, but threatened to froth over completely and make a mess of the bar.
This particular brawl is about growlers, those half-gallon (or more) jugs that can be refilled straight from the local pub or brewery’s tap, sealed and taken home to drink at your leisure, or within two days, whichever comes first. Old timey, folksy-looking things that come with squeaky-green eco-credentials, the growler is back in a big way.
Like anything that achieves a certain degree of popularity, some folks have lined up to take potshots. The most high-profile growler naysayer is Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and an internationally renowned beer expert. In a recent article in Bon Appetit, he shared some strong words:
“Growlers are basically beer destroyers. They’re often unsanitary, and the refilling process mixes in a lot of oxygen–the tiniest amount of oxygen kills beer so quickly. Then, if you walk across the street in full sunlight, with a clear growler, the beer will skunk before you get to your car.”
Oliver’s comments prompted a stream of vituperative responses, some more bitter than a heavyweight IPA. According to one riposte, Oliver’s words are patronizing to beer drinkers who ‘understand the dynamics associated with this form of consumption… and don’t need someone reprimanding them like children.’ Other posters turned the screen blue with bilious volleys aimed squarely at the growler haters, espousing the many virtues of growlers in between hurls.
If it sounds like a storm in a beer-jug, it kinda is. But it turns out there really aren’t many detractors out there. And in the end, Oliver’s criticism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. An unusual, cool-looking artifact from which you can drink beer suggests resourcefulness and austerity, connecting the present to an age before mass production. The retro-appeal, and the environmental aspect of a growler is also absolutely vital to the growler’s renewed status. The green glow of satisfaction you get from refilling your cask week after week beats hands-down the pang of guilt you feel when you’ve crushed and disposed of the fifth can of the night, dispatching it to the nearest landfill within days.
When the growler was born, beer bottles and cans simply didn’t exist. Instead, the local bartender would fill pails or buckets with around a quart of beer for regulars to take home. The etymology is unclear, but some sources suggest it was the conflict between the thirsty customer looking for a full can of ale, and the penny-pinching barman trying to fob them off with too much head, that lead to the name ‘growler’. Others say the name comes from the growling stomachs of factory workers, sated only by the bucket of beer provided (if they were lucky) by their employers.
Wherever the name comes from, the growler represents an economic exchange that was firmly out-of-fashion during the wasteful, disposable 20th Century. It harkens back to an age when people manufactured, sold and bought everything within their local community, a time when consumers and producers were face-to-face, accountability transparent. So if you want to know where your beer comes from, just visit your local brewery. Take your growler, treat it right, and you may never buy a six-pack again.
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Leading image by Andrew Lamberson.