Our growlers are one of the most distinctive features of our historic brewery. Our gorgeous glass vessels fill our fridges and stand proudly along our bar. But what exactly is a growler? According to the Encyclopaedia of Brewing, a growler is
“[a] beer container usually made from glass or ceramics and a capacity of about 2L. They are designed for consumption of draught beer ‘carry-outs’ and associated mainly with the United States and Canada…The containers are fitted with a closure, typically a screw or hinged cap. Many bear specific branding. They have proliferated with the growth of the craft brewing segment” (Christopher Boulton, ed. Encyclopaedia of Brewing, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., 2013, p. 288).
That description certainly matches our growlers. Essentially, growlers provide a means of enjoying draught beer at home, and give small breweries a more feasible means of bottling their product. After all, we bottle everything by hand – we couldn’t do it if we used 500 mL bottles!
There is considerable debate regarding the etymology of the term “growler.” Early growlers looked nothing like our sleek glass jugs. Rather, they were galvanized or enamel pails, covered with a lid. According to one story, when the CO2 escaped from beneath the lid, it emitted a rumbling or “growling” sound.
Now, our naturally carbonated beer is quite flat by modern standards. It’s difficult to imagine that there is enough CO2 in our beer to create such an effect (and remember, we’re striving to recreate a mid-Victorian beer). However, it is important to note that growlers were more prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By this time, artificially carbonated beers were more common – perhaps the beer carried in these early growlers was more carbonated than the earlier style we brew at Black Creek.
Indeed, carbonation lies behind another explanation for the term “growler.” Apparently, when filling the growler, some brewers strove for more head to fill extra space, thus giving their customers less beer than they had paid for. The “growling” therefore refers to the resulting conflict between sellers and customers! In a 1909 Virginia law register, one brewer was indicted for doing just that. There was a statute prohibiting the sale of beer in quantities less than five gallons. He had been selling beer in five-gallon containers, but counting the foam. The register decided:
“…gas is an aeriform fluid but not a fluid…the measurement intended by the statute was of the quiet liquor after it had been released from confinement and reached a quiet condition in the open air.” (“Foam and Gas Are Not Beer,” The Virginia Law Register Vol. 14 (1 Feb, 1909): 805.)
If nothing else, this case suggests that at least some late Victorian/early twentieth century beer had more head than ours does. ndeed, an 1835 treatise by brewer William Black also notes the presence of some carbonation. He writes:
“If a vat of well-brewed beer should be opened by taking off the lid or top, in the middle of summer, precisely the same appearance will take place as when a bottle of beer is uncorked, namely, the carbonic acid gas, will almost immediately make its appearance on the top of the vat, in the shape of froth, as it does from the neck of the bottle in brisk beer.” (William Black, A practical treatise on brewing , and of storing of beer: reduced from forty years’ experience (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1835), 71-2.)
However, he goes on to caution new brewers that such “froth” is normal and will soon subside. Again, it seems that some early beer had more head than we might suspect.
All of which to say…perhaps growlers did get their name from escaping CO2. Or perhaps from unscrupulous selling practices. Or perhaps they get their name from the buckets of beer given to factory workers to quiet their “growling” stomachs.
In any case, until the Second World War, “growler” generally referred to a covered pail of beer, though there were some ceramic jugs of a similar style to our growlers. The emergence of the glass or ceramic “jug-style” growler is largely tied to the development of craft brewing. Microbreweries that weren’t quite up to large-scale bottling revived the growler as a means of offering takeaway beer.
And so, our growlers are really a fusion of old and new: a traditional practice embraced in an innovative way. Just remember, we always recommend you keep your first one!