Growler Wars: The Pros, Cons, Best, and Worst of 64oz Beer To-Go Containers

By Pat Wellenbach, AP

Writing for Bon Apetit magazine, Andrew Knowlton stumbled into some unexpected controversy when he interviewed Garrett Oliver about the foibles of growlers. It turns out Garrett Oliver is not a fan of them, and in presenting Mr. Oliver's beliefs without a second opinion, Knowlton kicked up a hornet's nest of growler lovers--just check out the hilarious comments. Spoiler: I agree with Garrett Oliver, but said article feels incomplete. So, as a companion piece, I have put together this piece to sort fact from fiction, poll other brewing experts on their opinions, and run down the best and worst growlers available on the market.

In the story, Mr. Oliver, who is the Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, not to mention considered one of the foremost beer experts in the world, contends that growlers often leave beer oxidized, that clear growlers get lightstruck in moments, and that the glass is often unsanitary. Garrett also says that "brewers tend to hate them." That comment got many commenters riled up, contending that is just his opinion and that his critiques  are inaccurate and unresearched. My response is, 'really?' I think Garrett Oliver knows what he is talking about and it's no bold statement that beer poured from a tap into a growler is going to get some oxidation. Just as in bottling a beer either professionally or as a homebrewer, you must be wary of oxidation. There is a reason the bottling gun was created--to purge glassware of oxygen that will potentially spoil your beer. As any pro brewer can attest, every bit of oxygen you can keep out of your bottles will result in a noticeably better-tasting beer. Without advanced technology, most bars and  breweries fill growlers directly from the taps, which causes foaming and splashing and much more contact with oxygen. As noted in the article, there are now more advanced and expensive ways of filling growlers in a sanitary manner with little to no oxidation, as demonstrated in the video below.



In Washington, growlers are huge--many brewers fill the half gallon jugs all day, and they make up a significant portion of their business. I have seen a number of bottleshops that use the Pegas Craftap Growler filler in Washington state. I have never seen a growler filler in Oregon, where sharing a pint at the pub is the first choice in enjoying a craft beer. Perhaps the difference is simply that some states or cities don't have as an advanced pub culture with so many craft beer options.

Fans of growlers will defend how well they keep their glass clean, the precautions they take with temperature and fill, and claim that there aren't really any clear growlers. I think the most preposterous are those who claim that in their experience the beer is good for weeks or more. Others wisely point to the fact that they drink their growlers within a day or two of purchase. Many people in Portland own the really nice large mouthed swing-top growlers of the like that Deschutes Brewery sells, or the new Hydro Flask insulated screw tops that many brewpubs are picking up. For these folks, I say Garret is not talking about you; you are doing it right. Huge props go out to those taphouses that have purchased professional level growler fillers and to the folks who know how best to treat their beer. Unfortunately, you're in the minority and, like any parent worries about their child, brewers also worry about their beer.

I took the liberty of polling a few Oregon brewers for their thoughts on growlers, and for the most part they agreed with Garrett's point, but saw both pros and cons.

"All of the issues that Garret mentions have validity," noted Pelican Brewery's award winning Brewmaster and Co-Owner Darron Welch. "I am neither pro- nor anti-growler. They have a place, especially in a brewpub, but there are many potential hazards associated with dispensing beer into growlers."

"Garrett is right, growlers can be bad for beer."
- Vasilios Gletsos, Brewmaster at Laurelwood Brewing.


"I have a love hate relationship with growlers." - Josh Pfriem, Co-Owner/Brewmaster at Pfriem Family Brewers

In fact, the brewers had so much to say on the subject of growlers, each of their responses could be a short article by themselves.

"Oxygen pick-up is always a problem, as is holding carbonation. It is hard to know how many customers follow the consistent advice to consume the beer within 1-2 days and to keep it refrigerated the whole time. But since so many people keep on buying growlers from us and others, they must be having a good experience. Otherwise, why would growlers keep selling? Like so many things, the real answer is, “it depends.” If the growler is clean and consumed quickly, then they are great." - Darron Welch

Vasilios Gletsos asks, "Is drinking a growler a couple days old as bad or worse the a bottle that can be three weeks to three months old (on the low side)? The devil is in the details on how this is handled throughout."

Josh Pfriem sees numerous benefits that he enjoys about growlers. "On one hand, they are wonderful. How else can you walk, bike, or take a quick trip to your local brewery and get local, fresh beer to go while supporting your favorite brewery? This is especially true when that brewery does not have bottled beer. "


Since each brewer had so much to say on the subject and I don't want to be accused of taking their lines out of context--as each give a balanced opinion on the subject--I will include their full responses in the bottom of this story. But first, let's take a look at these half-gallon serving vessels in their various shapes, sizes, and brands. They have came along way in recent years.

Although I own at least 8 growlers myself, I rarely fill them but on the occasion of a special gathering or the only chance to enjoy a beer later at home. Whenever possible, a bottle is always preferable, unless you're bringing it to a larger gathering. As a longtime beertender, I can say with some experience that most of the growler-filling public fills with an eye on their wallet. It is usually much cheaper to fill a growler than to purchase a bottle of the same beer, and that can be a huge attraction. I have been asked to fill everything from plastic used bottled water containers to a half-gallon used orange juice jug that still reeked of citrus.



The classic growler shape depicted above is still the standard mode of delivery. They come in both clear and brown glass and can shatter relatively easily. They are not too difficult to fill--unless the beer is highly carbonated--and you can see through them enough to measure the liquid and head. One of the bigger problems with them is that the caps are cheap and easily damaged and don't always keep a great seal. The caps are also easily lost and often have fungal growth inside.


photo credit: Jeff's Journey blog

These German-style growlers of the type Deschutes Brewery uses locally look great and have a nice big handle. They are sturdy and the swing-top lid assures it won't get lost and is easy to clean while providing a good seal. They also have a wider mouth then the typical growler, which makes them easier to fill, and the longer necks can accommodate more foam. The cons are that they are very heavy, expensive, and no easier to clean.



You probably are familiar with these pottery-shaped pudgy growlers of the like popularized by Russian River. Yes, they look cool. I can't stand them, though; the mouths are tiny and difficult to fill, the shape promotes frothing and oxidation, filling them often results in excessive foaming, and either the vessel does not get completely full or a lot of wasted beer gets poured out.



I have recommended these really beautiful ceramic swing top growlers from Portland Growler Co. before, but the downside is they are heavy and opaque, as well as still being hard to clean and easily breakable. Still, they are better than most.



A newer entry onto the growler market are these half sized 32oz "Growlettes" that local breweries like Cascade and Coalition are using. They are becoming popular for their more compact size, lower commitment to drinking, and hand grenade shape. The negatives, though, are high--the smaller size with no wider mouth and no neck can make them more difficult to fill on foamy beers. They are no easier to clean, and they have no handles and thus are more difficult to carry and easier to drop and break. They also use the same sort of cap as the common growler, which does not keep a great seal.


 I dig the stainless steel SS Growler. I have only filled one once, but its wide mouth and not too narrow or wide body make it easier to fill. The stainless steel is easier to clean and harder to scratch, and the swing top all-metal seal is great. I don't see enough of these in the PNW.



The Hyrdro Flask growlers have been becoming very popular and they had been my favorite until some manufacturing issues came up. These steel growlers have a huge wide mouth, the metal is easy to clean and very difficult to break or scratch, and, best of all, they keep beer cold like no other vessel. I filled one at Boneyard Brewing in Bend one afternoon, left it in the car until the next day to test it, and found it still chilled and tasty the next day. The big problem is the seal. The company may have fixed the problem by now, but on earlier models they were not creating an air tight cap and many were foaming and leaking from the cap. I know a few breweries, such as Deschutes, returned their orders.



The best of the best may just be The Bräuler from the locally-based The Zythos Project. It's ironic that one of the cities least interested in filling growlers may have designed the best way to do so. It's made of stainless steel, has a wide-mouth long neck and fill markings on the side, and is light and compact. However, the best feature of all is not yet finished. A recently finished successful Kickstarter campaign secured funding to produce the Fresh Cap (pictured below). So far just a prototype that has been tested, the fresh cap will allow a CO2 injection system to keep your beer carbonated, under pressure, and fresh.







Are there any great advances in growlers I dont know about? Please leave tips in the comments

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Full, Unabreviated Brewers Response to the Bon Apetit article

Anyhow, I read the link that you provided, and all of the issues that Garret mentions have validity.
I am neither pro- nor anti-growler.  They have a place, especially in a brewpub, but there are many potential hazards associated with dispensing beer into growlers.
It is worth noting, however, that beer customers in Oregon tend to be a little more knowledgeable, especially those who go to the effort of toting around a growler.
As such, I think many of the growler customers here in Oregon already know that the beer has to be refrigerated until consumed, and that the shelf life is measured in hours and days, rather than weeks or months.
In our case, most of the growler fills we do here are with new growlers.  That limits the “grubby” problem.  Training the bartender to properly inspect incoming growlers is also important.  If a mildewed cake is stuck to the bottom of the growler, then obviously, you can’t fill it with beer!
Oxygen pick-up is always a problem, as is holding carbonation.  It is hard to know how many customers follow the consistent advice to consume the beer within 1-2 days and to keep it refrigerated the whole time.  But since so many people keep on buying growlers from us and others, they must be having a good experience.  Otherwise, why would growlers keep selling?
Like so many things, the real answer is “it depends.”
If the growler is clean and consumed quickly, then they are great.  Especially if the bartenders are not too busy and have the time to fill them. 
If the growlers are not rinsed and cleaned after each use, or if they are left to sit around after filling, then they will certainly harm the quality of the beer.
Sorry I couldn’t be more succinct for you.
Hope the article comes out well.

Darron Welch
Brewmaster
Pelican Pub & Brewery


Garrett is right, growlers can be bad for beer, as can bottles or kegs. Quality starts at the brewery through all aspects until you drink the beer. Once beer is in the bright tank, you can pretty much only damage it. In the bright tank beer has had it's final conditioning and is in it's prime. This is why there will always be a demand for brewpubs. You can get beer as fresh and well treated as possible, ideally. Then packaging the beer, as much as any brewer can try, and some do better then others, there will be some degree of oxygen inclusion, which starts to deteriorate the flavors. Handling practices determine how much oxygen makes it into the package. This is exacerbated by temperature and movement, going from brewery to warehouse to warehouse to retailer. what I mean to say is the distributor and retailers also play a large part in the quality invested by properly cooling their warehouse, not moving the beer around more then necessary, rotating stock and not ordering too much. I am not talking about bottle conditioning since I have no qualifications there, but about the vast majority of bottled/kegged beer.

So, is drinking a growler a couple days old as bad or worse the a bottle that can be three weeks to three months old (on the low side)? The devil is in the details on how this is handled through out. Garrett talks about clear glass on a sunny day, being left out or whatever, and drank weeks later perhaps. A sort of worst case scenario and obvious issues, which can exist on bottle and keg side in different ways. Most growlers, I'd guess are brown glass, which should mitigate that issue, you can also insulate them, or if you are concerned you can exercise a fair amount of caution and control over the beer by cleaning it properly, chilling it, rinse with soda water, etc. As per usual, the brewers are probably more concerned about the beer then the consumer is, as it should be. We work hard to build in quality. Just as we hate for our beer to be poured on dirty lines, or dirty glassware, we are concerned how it is finally presented.

Here is my list of best to worst. There is a lot of grey area, like the fact that some breweries make better or worse beer, therefore is a bad local beer going to outrank a fantastic regional? probably not, so we have to assume it is all a beer of similar quality. Also a local beer may be old, but this is less likely on average. Some beer styles hold up better then others too. At a bar, you can't see the history on it's way there or how quick they sell through a beer. Generally speaking, the further away the brewery is, the older it is and the further it travels. The less care an establishment invests in their beer service, the worse the beer will be. As stated before, best is from bright tank at the brewery, the more removed from the experience, the worse the result.

on tap at the brewery off bright tank
on tap at a tap house of the brewery (quicker turn rate on kegs, education, attention to detail)
growler fill at brewery, drank fresh
growler fill at tap house associated with local brewery, drank fresh
from bottles purchased from the brewery
From here on I will put local first; substitute regional, national, the international after each line
local beer on tap at a better beer bar
local beer from a growler filled at a better beer bar, drank fresh
local beer on tap at any old bar, etc.
bottles produced by a local brewery bought in supermarket, etc.
growler from a local brewery, filled at a better beer bar, semi neglected, week old
I would not recommend drinking below this line
Out of date bottles from a local brewery
Old, improperly treated growler from a local brewery

that's what I got. let me know if you have any further questions. Cheers,
Vasili Gletsos
Brewmaster
Laurelwood Brewing Co.
Portland, Oregon 



Here are a couple of thoughts on growlers:

I have a love hate relationship with growlers.  

On one hand they are wonderful.  How else can you walk, bike, or take a quick trip to your local brewery and get local, fresh beer togo while supporting your favorite brewery. This is especially true when that brewery does not have bottled beer.

On the other hand they are a terrible package for beer.  Rarely has the customer been trained correctly how to clean and store the growler so when it shows up to be filled it is not clean and will effect the flavor of the beer being put into the growler.  Next is the problem is blowing the Co2 out of the beer.  It is very difficult to keep the Co2 in solution while pouring a growler, especially on highly carbonated beers.  Also there is the problem of oxidation.  Instantly when a beer is put into a oxygen filled growler it begins to oxidize, which is fine if you drink it within 24 hours of being poured, otherwise the beer goes down hill fast.

The growler is a double edge sword filled of positives and negatives.  I do believe overall the positives out way the negatives, but I would like to see more people be educated on how to use growlers most effectively.  It would also be great if someone came up with a widget that would hook up to a tap facet that would eliminate some of the problems listed above.  

At the end of the day we are proud to serve our beer drinkers growlers at pFriem Family Brewers and try to do our part to educate folks how to get the best experience with the beer they are taking home.

Another thought:  

I am excited to see what happens with the evolution of growler stations, especially if we figure out a way for them to clean, purge, and counter pressure the fill.

Hope this is helpful!

Cheers!


Josh Pfriem
Brewmaster
pFriem Family Brewers

29 comments:

  1. Occasionally, especially if I am travelling, I may have a growler that lasts until day 2. but 99% of the time my growler is consumed within hours of purchase. Same for just about everyone I know. It does not take a rocket scientist to tell you that filling a growler is not a good long-term packaging solution.

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    1. Obviously you've not met The Bräuler!

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  2. I bought the Stone Growler for my boyfriend's birthday and he couldn't of been more surprised or pleased with it. It has been one of the better presents I have found for him.

    Regards,
    Juliana

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  3. Rumors have it that a wide mouth Growlette is hitting the market soon.
    I really love my Hydroflask & it gets used all the time. i got one from the first batch that hit the country and have not had any leak issues at all.

    I really like the look of the Brauler but the weight distribution felt really weird (top heavy when empty) but the co2 idea if it comes to fruition is really cool & could be a game changer. I have not filled one or handled one full...
    Cheers

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  4. I have been using a Klean Kanteen as a growler. Insulated, huge mouth for filling, airtight cap, stainless steel for easy cleaning, affordable, etc. Can get them at Mr Green Beans on Mississippi or at New Seasons.

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  5. Some places have more higher growler use because of weird state laws. Montana breweries sell a ton of growlers because you can't actually drink on premise at most production breweries.

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  6. The author made a mistake;
    "There is a reason the bottling gun was created--to purge glassware of CO2 that will potentially spoil your beer"
    is incorrect, you purge the bottle WITH CO2 to displace oxygen, which it what causes oxidation. CO2 is what you want to be in contact with your beer.

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  7. LOVE the Stainless Steel growler from Basecamp Brewing.. like most, the beer typically only lasts for a few hours, although the growler keeps them reasonably fresh for another day or two.

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  8. As an interesting side note, we here at Bushwhacker are not allowed to even fill growlers, as we have been told by OLCC "a winery can not fill a growler or any other to go container." Since cider is considered wine..we are a no go. Even IF we had a beer on tap..

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  9. Here are my thoughts about growlers. I'm copying and pasting from our FB discussion on the topic so sorry for pimping out my blog:

    "I don't like growlers either, not JUST because they're bad for your beer, but I much prefer the pub and I think people should support pubs. Here are more of my thoughts on that, with links to an article we did on the history of the growler and brewer's thoughts:
    http://www.focusonthebeer.com/2012/01/pub-vs-growler.html"

    I moved to CO from OR and was shocked by the amount of growler fills I see on a regular basis. I have not seen a growler filler, just a little plastic tube and by the end the beer is super foamy and the pour out a ton of beer. I'm used to heading to the pub in Oregon, it was a near-daily activity and it is certainly different here and I miss it dearly.

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  10. First, a general comment. Every package has a downside. Growlers are a fine package when used for short hauls. In the case of brewpubs, they're the ONLY off-premise choice, and therefore full of advantages. I have a friend in the Johns and I usually hit Occidental on the way. Their beer is in our glasses within ten minutes, brewery-fresh and delightful. In that case, a growler rocks.

    Semi-relatedly. When I was in Koln, we stopped into an old Reissdorf pub and they had a long line of growlers identical to the Deschutes variety sitting above the bar. We thought it was really cool, but it turns out they were historical artifacts--no one uses growlers there anymore. So maybe you'll have your way...eventually.

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  11. I have one of these: http://www.benjaminarthurco.com/ in red. I like it a lot.

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  12. I've got high praises for the Pegas Craftap system. We've been filling growlers on it since August 2011. We chose this system due to less waste and longer shelf life, as it goes with one of our core goals at 99 Bottles: "To act as stewards of beer."

    I do notice there is a lot of confusion about what the purpose of the machine is. Some are under the impression that it adds carbonation to a beer; this it does not do.

    The Craftap purges the growler with Carbon Dioxide (CO2) to remove any oxygen before filling with beer. Why focus on a counter-pressure fill? Beer and oxygen don't go well together; oxidized beer has flavors of wet cardboard or paper. Counter-pressure filling ensures that the headspace in the growler is solely CO2, which reduces the chances of oxidation if storing your filled growler for any amount of time. In our tests we've easily gotten shelf life of 4-6 weeks from unopened growlers. Some beers stored in 32-ounce swing-top growlers under cold, dark refrigeration have lived upward of 3-6 months without trace of oxidation. So nice!

    Granted, if you're taking your growler home and cracking it open right away, you may not feel there's benefit to having your growler filled under counter-pressure. But if you're not one to crack open your growler within three days or so, and having it filled via traditional vinyl hose from tap, likely you'll be able to taste signs of oxidation.

    However, there are some limitations to using the system...

    * The growler must be able to handle pressure. This means turning away ceramic & vintage glass growlers. Why? They'll explode when the CO2 is introduced.

    * You need to be able to see the beer. It means turning away the cool stainless growlers you have pictured & listed in this blog. Why? We need to watch the beer for fill control. The Craftap relies on the operator to adjust the fill speed to assure a smooth, foamless fill. (On a side note, it's also difficult to see if there's residual build-up or mold growth in those solid jugs.)

    What I'm constantly shocked and disturbed by is the condition in which growlers are presented for fills. Here's this amazing, delicious craft beer, and people will present smelly, moldy jugs and say, "It's okay that it's not clean, I'll drink it anyway. Go ahead and fill it." The thought makes me want to retch. Not knowing a jug is dirty until I open it and the putrid aroma wafts up into my face sometimes does make me retch. We refuse all dirty jugs. To my surprise, a refusal to fill an unsanitary jug results in a few cuss words tossed my way. Sorry, dirty means no fill.

    That said... "How to clean growler jugs" would make an excellent video blog topic, tackling the various shapes and sizes, see-through to solid.

    Cheers, Tiffany.

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  13. I think this situation is begging for a standardized, reusable mini-keg system that fits in a home preservation appliance you can tap from yourself (a mini-kegerator, if you will) that is also practical for just storing in the fridge and tapping without such an appliance. I know some bigger brewers already use this concept with some degree of success (Heineken/New Castle & other European brands), but there doesn't seem to be a universal standard. Calling all inventors/entrepreneurs...

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  14. Valid points abound here. My question is what's the point? If a customer is enjoying the beer they drink from their growler, then there is no wrong way.

    I can understand a brewer being concerned that poor beer handling could result in bad word of mouth. But that's about it.

    I abuse the heck out of my growlered beer and I enjoy it. I always go by bicycle. Most of the time my growler fill occurs at the beginning of my hours-long adventure. So I am riding around for half a day or more with filled growlers knocking around in my panniers (saddle bags), sometimes in hot weather. I even am too lazy to refrigerate the growlers until the next day sometimes. And you know what? The beer almost always tastes fine. I know many of you will say "well then you don't know what beer should taste like." I refer you to my original thought.

    I'll just share a tip I was given by a beertender once. Store growlers on their side in the fridge. I guess less gas escapes this way. I sometimes enjoy drinking from a given growler for – prepare to gasp – two to three weeks.
    Cheers.

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  15. Sat at the bar in the Deschutes Pub in the Pearl on Saturday afternoon, enjoying a snifter of The Abyss. I watched the bartender jam a growler under the Abyss tap, flip the handle and walk away to serve other customers. The beer fizzed down into the growler, and inevitably overflowed, wasting quite a bit of that precious liquid as it spilled on to the floor. The punter paid $48 for his growler fill, and I would put good money on him not being able to drink that much Abyss in 1-2 days

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  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  17. I just had a beercation in Portland and lost it buying the awesome Growler from Deschutes, Bridgeport and Widmer Brothers. Being from Atlanta most growler shops sell the standard issued ones and that aren't nearly as cool and don't keep the beer nearly as fresh. I'm not one to let the beer sit in the growler long and I will finish one off with some friends after two days. Growlers have their up and downside. When I fill them it is great otherwise I am more than happy to buy a six pack or grab a cold one with some friends.

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  18. I got my Stoneware Growler from Portland Growler Company last summer and love it! aside from all the great comments it gets me, it kept my beer cold on those sunny days at the river. i haven't had any complaints from my bartenders on filling it.

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  19. Check out the 32 oz Growlettes from Portland Growler Co.

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  20. Very good blog post on a topic of growing interest. At Total Wine & More we'll have growler stations in 20 of our stores by the end of 2013 (where allowed by law). We're now installing the Pegas CrafTap system as shown in the video in the blog, which essentially eliminates brewer's concerns regarding oxydation. Brewers I've spoken with really like this system, and beer enthusiasts certainly love it, as do the store staff filling the growler bottles.

    In our experience, beer enthusiasts love growlers and we've even seen more crossover customers from wine over to beer with the intrigue of bringing fresh draught beer home. There is consumer education involved, just as there is with educating them on pouring craft beer into a glass for the best experience. It's part of the process and growlers add another level of romance and intrigue to craft beer.

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  21. Do you have any details on these guys? http://drinktanks.com/

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    Replies
    1. I ordered one, but it's not coming until August, 2013. I also own a Brauler. I like the Brauler, but it's expensive for a single-walled container that does not thermally insulate the beer. I like the idea of their fresh cap that allows you to purge with CO2, but I have no idea why they use a proprietary connection. It defeats the purpose and makes it not a viable option for regular use.

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  22. The BeerPouch solves all the problems of glass growlers. www.beerpouch.com

    http://www.today.com/food/beerpouch-makes-it-easy-sip-suds-go-6C10070626

    The TODAY SHOW Says it best above.

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  23. i love growlers. but i have always bought them for same day consumption. i had never even considered trying to keep the beer due to fear of going flat. i either buy them on the way to a party or an hour or two before guests arrive and have never been anything but happy. Consider the choices #1 budwieser 12 pack @ $11 #2 decent beer 12 pack @ $17 #3 2 growlers of excellent beer from buffalo bills $14. not a tough decision

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  24. The BeerPouch Flexible growler is changing the way carbonated beverages are packaged: www.beerpouch.com This container has no airspace, and no light. Brewing experts will appreciate that the two main enemies of beer are eliminated in the BeerPouch. We have been using them for a year and the new versions are clearly the wave of the future. You can't burp a glass growler, but you CAN burp a BeerPouch. No air is good!

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  25. This article could use a refresh, considering the amount of double-walled stainless steel growlers that have come out since it was published (MiiR, Drinktanks, etc.)

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  26. I discovered recently that my Hydro and lifeline insulated growlers do not hold 64 oz US standard it appears they are imperial oz. 1.8 liters not 1.9 ok it amounts to a small bit But its my last sip and i want it !
    they both hold temp exactly the same. I like the brauler single wall so you can chill it easily or put it in ice and i have a drink tank insulated arriving soon, with the CO2 charged dispenser which you cannot charge when growler is full requires some space inside growler. cheers

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  27. Here's another cool growler to add to your reviews http://deepwoodbrew.com/stainless-steel-growlers/10-stainless-steel-growler-2l-mini-keg.html

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Try not to be a dick.