Beer in Transit: A Centuries-Old Problem Gets a New Solution

October 23, 2018

By October Staff, October 23, 2018

Glass, plastic, metal, wood, leather, or clay? A beer’s method of transit has always been just as important as how it was made. A distinctly local beverage until the modern era, brewed within the confines of private homes or at the neighborhood tavern, beer was unlikely to last—staying both frothy and flavorful—beyond a few hours’ journey. When Shawn Huff, president and founder of GrowlerWerks, recently described his company as a group of “beer lovers with an engineering problem,” he inadvertently touched upon one of beer’s major long-term challenges. Beer lovers have always had an engineering problem, even centuries ago, but perhaps now that problem is close to being solved for good.

Several centuries ago, you might swill your beer from an earthenware vessel, like the heavy German Bierkrug. If you carried your beer in a bottle fashioned from leather, known as a “blackjack” in colonial America, you might risk the faint aftertaste of animal hide, not to mention the disdain of your peers: As an archived New York Times article on beer vessels quoted an 18th-century colonist, “when the Frenchmen first saw [the blackjack] they reported […] that Englishmen drink out of their boots.''

All photos courtesy of GrowlerWerks.

In the Revolutionary War era, the Founding Fathers were said to have fueled their political debate with all manner of alcohol, including beer delivered in a pail. (The sound of it sloshing allegedly led to the term “growler.”) Shortly after the Civil War, the first pressurized beer keg was invented, but back then, beer was also stored in barrels, which are naturally porous and cannot be sanitized. (These days, enterprising brewers are turning that to their advantage with barrel-aged beers, channeling bacterial processes to create a certain character and taste.)

Luckily for us, the days of barrels and buckets are long gone: Beer lovers know what a quality brew is supposed to taste like. Few self-respecting drinkers would even think to buy beers in plastic bottles, but the contemporary debate over glass bottles versus metal cans still rages. The former is breakable and light-permeable, the latter (arguably) gives beer a metallic taste.  In other words, modern beer brewers are still faced with the same two-fold challenge: how to brew a beer that sells, and how to successfully transport it.

From left: GrowlerWerks founders Even Rege, Brian Sonnichsen, and Shawn Huff.

A rise in craft breweries in the US—2017 statistics from the Brewers Association number them above 6,000—has led beer lovers to tackle this problem anew, coming up with vessel hybrids that address several transportation challenges all at once. The traditional glass growler, it seemed, just wasn’t cutting it. “Brewers don’t like standard growlers,” explained GrowlerWerks’ Huff, “because they know their beer is going to go flat and stale unless the customer drinks it right away.” His company’s solution is the uKeg, a pressurized growler with a CO2 regulatory cap that keeps beer fresh, cold, and carbonated, whether you’re taking it home from the taproom, or carrying it on a long hike.

“Beer will always lose something when it’s packaged, but our product is a portable draft beer product for everyone,” said Huff, citing a recent company survey with a surprising reveal: Nearly half the participants who had filled growlers in the last year were women. They’ve found that the uKeg appeals to a wide swath of beer drinkers, from those who brew at home but may not be bottling to those who want to preserve the taste—not to mention the camaraderie—of enjoying a freshly tapped beer on brewery premises. “Going down to your local brewery, getting a pint, seeing who else from your neighborhood is there. Sharing beer is a worldwide, universal thing.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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