Last summer, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. founder Ken Grossman embarked upon a cross-country bus tour from his brewery in Chico, Calif., to his new brewery in Mills River, N.C.
While in Colorado, Grossman and his accompanying crew of brewers went skydiving with their friends from Oskar Blues Brewery. Afterward, Grossman was speaking with Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis, the man whose name is on every can of Dale’s Pale Ale, when something caught his eye.
It was a massive can of beer.
At 32 ounces, the cans boasted twice the capacity of a 16-ounce can. And Oskar Blues was using a proprietary, bar-top can seamer to fill them from the taps, like a growler.
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It’s easy to see how the Ball Corp., the cans manufacturer famous for making canning jars, arrived at the name Crowler. They trademarked the term, but Oskar Blues developed the seamer itself – which seems appropriate since they were the first craft brewery to can their beers. Oskar Blues has now sold more than 120 of the machines to breweries, bars and beer stores around the nation (and even one coffee company).
Grossman purchased three: one for his brewery in Chico, one for Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Room in Berkeley, Calif., and one for the bus ride to his new North Carolina brewery. For laughs, they started using it to can everything in sight, from T-shirts to instant noodles. And then they opened bottles of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, poured the revered double IPA into the big can, and sealed it up right there on the bus.
That was a joke, but Sierra Nevada will soon fill Crowlers at their newly opened taproom in Mills River. Several other bars and breweries across the state have also purchased the machines, such as Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham.
“It’s been phenomenal, over the top,” said Bull City owner Seth Gross of the response. “We have people calling from counties away just because they heard we were canning.”
Gross prefers aluminum to glass, due to its ability to better shield the beer from oxygen and light. Cans also fit in well with his commitment to sustainability, as aluminum is infinitely recyclable (of course, traditional glass growlers can be cleaned and used many times).
Instead of investing in large, expensive orders of pre-printed cans, breweries can order blank cans and apply adhesive labels after filling them. Bull City has generic labels to write in beers, as well as specific ones for two of their biggest sellers: Parrish Street Pale Ale and Bryant Bridge Gateway Golden Ale.
Breweries are accustomed to filling growlers, but it wasn’t until a legislative change in 2013 that bars, restaurants and bottle shops could fill them as well. And while many of these establishments began filling growlers as soon as they could, the guys behind State of Beer, a bar and bottle shop in downtown Raleigh, wanted to go another route.
“We were looking for an alternative package to the growler,” said Chris Powers, co-owner of State of Beer as well as Raleigh’s Busy Bee Cafe and Trophy Brewing Co. “It seems as though a lot of bottle shops have started filling growlers and we wanted to be different.”
They aren’t the only ones. Crowlers can also be found at Southern Pines Brewing Co., Wilmington Brewing Co., Salud Beer Shop in Charlotte and Mountain River Tap and Growlers, a small bar inside the Triangle Stop convenience store in Mills River.
Daniel Hartis is the author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.