Cans have taken over as the craft beer container of choice. So it makes sense that the can craze should extend that into taproom takeaways in place of those cumbersome 64 oz. glass jugs. Enter the can growler, or Crowler.
It’s not the death of the glass growler yet, but options are increasing for other take home beverages formats. Last year Oskar Blues (Longmont, CO) teamed up with Wisconsin Aluminum Foundry Company (Manitowoc, WI) and Ball Packaging (Broomfield, CO) to create a stand-alone can-sealing machine for 32 oz. and 750 ml cans, dubbed Crowlers. The cans, a trademark of Ball Packaging, are sealed much like canned vegetables at home via a countertop unit not much larger than a sewing machine, but with a CO2 purge to prevent oxidation. Since implementing them in their own taproom, over 80 additional breweries are trying the new invention.
Locally, both Sociable Cider Werks and Oliphant Brewing are exploring options with the new package. The Crowler appeals to Sociable because of recycling economics. “Glass, cardboard, all that stuff costs the city money,” explains Sociable’s Jim Watkins. “The cost of aluminum actually makes the city money, so the only way that urban recycling works is if people are recycling aluminum.” Crowlers are also a smaller container than standard growlers, easier for one or two to split comfortably, and there is no deposit or cleaning involved.
Minnesota specifically defines a growler as a bottle, which is a potential roadblock, but Sociable’s Jim Watkins interprets the law less literally. “Minnesota statutes don’t define ‘bottles,’ so I deferred to the federal statute and ‘bottle’ is defined as any off-sale packaging,” he says, noting that the aluminum-twisting metal seal created by the machine also meets the stopper requirements of the law. Thus, he plans to push forward. “I don’t particularly like being told no,” Watkins explains, “[and] I’m willing to tangle with the state to do something new and innovative. Our whole business model is different.” In the meantime, he would like to see the verbiage of the state statute updated to make enforcement more clear cut, noting Minnesota’s conservative approach to regulations.
Wisconsin laws are more favorable and Somerset’s Oliphant, who has a machine on order, faces fewer restrictions. “I believe they’ll start catching in places that have the appeal to outdoor crowds and activities,” the brewery predicts. “Wisconsin and Minnesota seem like great jumping points.” Oliphant aims to have their machine operational by summer, when business at nearby Apple River brings additional customers to the area.
While they could technically be sold on liquor store shelves, Watkins believes Crowlers have similar limitations as growlers, which means taproom sales are still the ideal setting. The beer comes from a draft line, he notes, and to maintain freshness he plans to sell them in-house only. “They’re just a way to extend your time at Sociable,” Watkins says of taproom takeout options. “It’s in no way a replacement for properly counter-pressurized four-packs that you buy at the local liquor store,” he adds. He feels the Crowler shelf life is similar, though a little longer, than that of a growler. It is not intended for storage or bulk purchases.
Since last year the Crowler has taken on a life of its own. “I pictured it as a great tool for tasting rooms to create access to specialty beers,” says Jeremy Rudolf, who dreamed up the idea for Oskar Blues. “It has evolved far beyond that on its own.” To promote the format, Oskar Blues is warehousing the cans and selling smaller orders to breweries who lack storage space, such as Sociable Cider Werks. It’s become a burgeoning side business for the brewery, who was one of the first to sing the merits of cans versus bottles in the craft world.
The first beer to go into a Crowler was fittingly Dale’s Pale Ale, the beer that first appeared in cans back in 2004 and is now a prominent symbol of the new container movement. While hailed since their invention as a superior container, the aluminum publicity battle rages on. Or, as Oliphant puts it, “Cans are definitely the returning wave of the future.”