With growler sales booming both off-premise and in breweries and brewpubs, innovation in the draft-to-go sector abounds. Beer consumers can choose from a variety of packaging options, such as the basic glass “cider jug,” a sleek aluminum hydroflask, a giant can or a sophisticated miniature keg.
Last year, the Portland, Oregon–based GrowlerWerks used Kickstarter to fund its start-up costs, blowing past its initial $75,000 goal to raise $1.5 million from 10,293 backers. Founder and president Shawn Huff figured he wasn’t the only beer drinker frustrated by a choice craft brew going flat after a couple of days in a traditional glass growler. “I noticed there was an opportunity to put some engineering and design into the product,” he says. The result is the company’s uKeg, a chrome or copper-plated vessel with a tap handle that starts at $129. “This is basically a keg that fits in your refrigerator, and you can take it wherever you go,” he adds.
Huff points to consumers’ increasing desire to get craft beer straight from the source as a key driver for venturing into state-of-the-art growler packaging. “There’s a growing movement of people buying beer right where it’s made, at the brewery,” he says. “Bottles have been around for a long time, but people are interested in serving their beer in a different way. They love the uKeg’s tap handle and the ability to pour their own beer.” GrowlerWerks is currently shipping uKegs to customers who pre-ordered on Kickstarter, with plans to sell the product at kitchen supply shops, beer stores and other retailers.
Traditional glass growlers have a major drawback: They can break. Consumers looking to take their beer to an outdoor setting may not be legally allowed to use a glass container. At Boise, Idaho’s Sockeye Brewing Co., aluminum hydro flasks have long been a popular option for hikers, fishers and boaters. “We’re really recreational around here, and no one wants to take glass when they’re camping, hiking or fishing,” says Sockeye’s media relations and marketing assistant, Dawn Bolen. “Aluminum growlers have become really popular for that reason. They have two layers, keep the beer cold for a long time, and they don’t break. Plus they keep the light out.” Bolen notes that the popularity of the aluminum hydro flasks influenced Sockeye’s decision to can rather than bottle its beers when it began packaging them in 2012.
Along the same lines, Oskar Blues Brewery partnered with packaging manufacturer Ball Corp. in 2013 to develop the Crowler, a 25.4-ounce or 32-ounce can that can be filled and sealed on-site in a taproom or retail setting. “It was an instant hit,” says director of production and innovation Jeremy Rudolf, adding that Crowler machines are now in close to 400 accounts and counting. “It has all the benefits of a can. If you correctly purge it, fill it well and then seal it immediately, you create a kind of time capsule. Oxygen and light can’t get in, and carbonation can’t get out.”
Rudolf admits that the Crowler falls short of the glass growler when it comes to reuse, but notes that the technology eliminates the need to clean and sanitize, which consumers often don’t do thoroughly. “A Crowler is brand new every time, which helps with the integrity of the package,” he says. “And it’s fully recyclable. It becomes a can again in a couple of weeks.” Like an aluminum or stainless steel hydro flask, a Crowler can transport fresh beer to places where glass isn’t allowed or might be a hazard, such as parks and beaches.
At $3,600 for the machine, plus additional minor costs for materials, the Crowler system can give small producers a packaging solution that’s more affordable than investing in a canning or bottling line. The Crowler also keeps the beer fresher than a typical glass growler. “It creates an opportunity for the brewer to never say no to a customer,” Rudolf says. “Everybody wins.” Franchise retail chains The Growler Guys and Craft Beer Cellar are excited about the Crowler and have already installed the machines in several units, with plans to add more.
But few anticipate the Crowler replacing the traditional refillable growler altogether. “It’s a challenge for anybody who doesn’t want 32 ounces of beer, because once you open it, you can’t put a cap back on,” notes Kent Couch, cofounder of Bend, Oregon–based The Growler Guys. The company purges all containers with carbon dioxide before filling them with beer, but opening a growler lets in oxygen. If a consumer doesn’t finish the growler within a day or two, the beer loses carbonation and goes flat. The Growler Guys’ proprietary Phsssh system is a special cap that injects carbon dioxide into the growler and extends the life of the beer by several more weeks. “We’ve had a lot of success with it and we sell a lot of the systems,” Couch says, noting that The Growler Guys continuously assesses new technologies to offer customers a range of containers.
Rudolf of Oskar Blues believes the different packaging options can coexist peacefully. “They all serve a different volume of beer and a different purpose,” he says, although he has big dreams for the Crowler. “I think it’d be great in an airport. You could get local craft beer in a Crowler, hop on a flight and take it home.”