When brothers Luke and Walt Dickinson began brewing beer more than six years ago, there were fewer than a thousand craft breweries in the United States. Now, as co-owners of Wicked Weed Brewing, one of Asheville, North Carolina’s top brewhouses, the Dickinsons are pleased to see that number on the rise. By last count, there are more than 2,500 breweries and brewpubs. And as more entrepreneurs venture into the business, another pre-Prohibition staple has revived: the growler.
In the early 20th century, “bucket boys” often carried empty tin pails to the local saloon or brewery, and paid a few cents to fill it with beer before lugging it to a workplace or home. Why they were called “growlers” is still disputed; some say it was because of the growling stomachs at mealtime, others credit the sound of an impatient customer waiting for the brew. Whatever the true etymology, these days, 64- and 32-ounce growlers and filling stations are popping up all over the place – offering smaller craft breweries a chance to distribute beer with ease.
“Growlers have always been a method for small breweries or brewpubs to get their product in people’s hands,” says Walt. “The benefit of beer in a growler is that you’re able to get beers that aren’t normally packaged. Like us, up until very recently, we didn’t have a bottling line. We also don’t sell kegs outside of the brewery, so the only way to get our beer is to come to our location in Asheville. So, if you want to take any of our beer home, a growler is a great way to do it.”
To keep a growler fresh for as long as possible, Walt has two simple instructions: keep it cold and keep it closed. Stored at a low 40 degrees, growlers can maintain taste for up to a week. Through trial and error, he’s found that some beers store better than others. A Belgian Dark Strong or an Imperial Stout, for example, will have a longer shelf life than an IPA, which has hop flavors that diminish quickly. But once the growler is open, plan to drink it dry within a day.
“As soon as you open a growler, you’re introducing oxygen, and that beer is oxidizing and changing the way it tastes,” Walt says. “The thing for us as brewers is that we work really hard to make these beers taste a certain way. We want to make sure that that’s how it tastes when you get it in your glass. So, the sooner you drink it the better.”
Regardless of what brew you choose to fill the jug, and no matter how fast you drink it, today it’s easier than ever to take part in the growler movement. And for those who want to personalize the experience, there are now a number of custom growler makers who will create ceramic and glass containers to your specifications. With these craftsmen, breweries, filling stations, we have the chance to explore a world of beers in our own homes.
Photos by Judson Jones