Limited Shelf Life
The biggest disadvantage to this conventional manner of filling is that the beer is exposed to oxygen, which means that even an unopened growler of beer can lose its freshness within a few days of purchase. Generally that works fine for customers, provided they know to drink it in days, not weeks.
However, retailers can prolong freshness. Technique matters: topping off the growler minimizes the amount of oxygen in the neck of the container, and a tight-sealing cap helps.
At Half Time Beverage, the two stores have been stocking a line of growlers that Daniels believes significantly extend the beer’s freshness. “There are a lot of companies out there doing growlers in glass, stainless, aluminum, plastic, pottery, you name it,” he says. “What we have found to be the best is a company called DrinkTanks.” Based in Bend, Oregon, DrinkTanks produces double-walled, vacuum-insulated stainless steel growlers that promise to keep beer fresh for a week or more.
Daniels adds that an optional DrinkTranks cap solves another problem with growlers. “Most of the time, you take home a half-gallon growler, and you really should drink the whole thing at once because once you pour out half of the beer, the other half of the growler is air. Air is what hurts the beer.” The “Keg Cap” has an injection valve where a carbon dioxide cartridge can attach to pressurize the growler and drive out oxygen, even after opening, and a hose that serves as a tapping system. The company calls it a “mini-keg.”
DrinkTanks growlers and accessories aren’t cheap. Half Time orders them with the store’s logo, but also offers more modest growlers for sale. And they will fill any growler a customer brings in.
Other retailers have taken a different approach in the battle for beer freshness, installing a counter-pressure system that mimics the conditions under which kegs and bottles are filled at a brewery. The Glass Jug has made this space-age-looking system a feature of its young business.
“From a marketing standpoint it’s been great, because a lot of people will come in and see these funny looking machines and it starts a conversation,” Creech says. “They end up understanding more about the growler-filling process and what makes a counter-pressure growler fill better. Lots of folks come back and tell us they don’t buy growlers anywhere unless they’re using these machines.”
Creech is talking about the Pegas system, produced in Novosibirsk, Russia, and imported into the U.S. by The Growler Station. Company founder John O’Connell explains the counter-pressure system, which encloses the growler in an air-tight chamber. “We create a seal, then we pump carbon dioxide into the vessel. It moves all the oxygen out because carbon dioxide’s heavier. Then we bring the liquid in and it travels down the side of the vessel and fills from the bottom up—no foam—and it’s under pressure, just as if you were filling a beer bottle on a bottling line. It’s the same principle.”
Not only does Creech believe this delivers a better fill, but it also cuts waste. “When you pour a pint, you get a nice head on the beer because it’s releasing that pressure,” he explains. “But if you’re pouring the beer into an already-pressurized environment, all of that carbonation stays in solution: it stays in the beer. That’s good for us, because there’s less waste—you’re not foaming out a lot and pouring it down the drain—and it’s good for the customer, because all the carbonation stays in the beer [until they’re ready to pour a pint to drink].”
The Pegas system is designed exclusively for filling growlers. In order to pour pints or flights for customers, The Glass Jug also stocks its 16 growler selections in a separate, standard tap system.
The cost of a counter-pressure system is higher than conventional taps. “Those Pegas units run in the ballpark of about $5,000 each,” Creech says. “That’s set up for four beers plus a carbon dioxide line for purging.”
O’Connell’s company promises to make the process easy. “Every single build we do is custom-built to the retailer’s wants and needs, and space availability. We deliver a full turnkey solution.” Since launching in 2010, The Growler Station has set up over 200 locations, some as stand-alone beer specialty stores and others within larger grocery or liquor retail outlets.