Long before we had refrigerators in our homes, the only way to have fresh beer around the house was to tote it home from the brewery or tavern. Many of the early breweries would supply beer only to a particular city or even a neighborhood. All of the beer they produced was packaged in kegs and sold within a 1- to 5-mile radius of the brewery.
Since bottles were not an option and one could not spend all of one’s time in a bar, a way to transport beer home from the faucet became necessary. This dilemma led to the development of the growler.
Early forms of this beer transport were just crudely made, galvanized metal pails. The deluxe ones had lids, and they were made of stainless steel. I have seen copper and wooden versions as well.
The Origin of the Name
Beer in the late 1800s was a safer, more sterile beverage than water or milk. For households in towns like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and the German-settled towns in Pennsylvania, the beverage of choice was beer, and the fact that children consumed beer in the home was not considered odd.
The term “growler” originated as a result of children handling beer. The father or grandfather of the household would usually send the kid down to fetch a fresh pail of beer. If the child was not careful and splashed the beer out of the bucket, the old man was said to “growl.”
Teenagers could make good money and get a free lunch if they would show up at the factories and pick up the workers’ beer pails to get them filled at the taverns. These entrepreneurs would use a long pole in order to carry a quantity of pails to refill on one trip. This task was known as “rushing the growler.”
After Prohibition, refillable beer containers went away except in a few areas, most notably Baltimore. The breweries there produced a jar with a painted label, handle and lid to work as a growler. The jars were filled at the neighborhood bars, enabling the locals to transport home their fresh National Bohemian and Gunther beer. These worked well and were much more sanitary than the metal pails they replaced.
A number of breweries also packaged what was known as a “picnic bottle.” These half-gallon containers held just enough unpasteurized draft beer for a Sunday picnic. They were filled and capped at the brewery, but they were cumbersome and hard to fill, and they had a short shelf life. Eventually, they were phased out.
Beer to Go
When the microbreweries began sprouting up in the late 1980s, so did the 20th-century version of the growlers—the half-gallon painted-label bottle with a screw top lid. Many brewpubs and micros also introduced the wide mouth, wire bale, and ceramic swing-top bottles used in Germany. These bottles are called siphons, and they hold between 1 and 2 liters of beer. Some have handle assemblies and some have handles as part of the bottle’s mold. This certainly is a more regal way to bring home fresh beer.
Some micros are experimenting with a “bag in box” type of take home, and another interesting package is the party pig. This brown PET bottle uses the bag in box technology and a cartridge of carbon dioxide to push the beer into your glass.