You know it as soon as that first sip hits your tongue. With it comes a combination of disappointment, disgust and anger. You feel let down, cheated and maybe even swindled. There is nothing like purchasing a nice bottle of craft beer, opening it up and knowing with the first taste that it's bad. You may not even know exactly what's wrong, you just know it tastes like shit.
Well, now beer lovers can look forward to multiplying that feeling of rage by a factor of four if they're not careful.
A new growler law in North Carolina went into effect in late October that allows bars and restaurants to legally fill growlers straight from the tap at their establishments. For those who may be unfamiliar, growlers are sealable glass or metal containers that hold up to four pints that can be filled with beer in a commercial establishment and taken home, theoretically to enjoy with friends or family while watching the game or a marathon run of Orange Is The New Black.
Seems like a win-win right? Bars should theoretically see higher sales volumes, and consumers should have a wider selection of beers to take home at better prices. In a perfect world, this is all true, and in many cases this is exactly how it will play out.
That said, there are a few things that consumers (and retailers) should take into consideration when purchasing and selling growlers to make sure their experiences are not only positive, but realistic, so they don't wind up feeling the need to send the remote through the television.
One of the biggest concerns breweries and many retailers had before this law passed was sanitation and how the law would address growler cleaning. While the law does require that institutions that fill growlers also clean and properly label them, it does so in a fairly ambiguous way. A commercial growler-filling machine is not required, so there may or may not be residue and micro-organisms left when growlers are refilled. Depending on the beer and how long those tiny critters are left to their own devices, this could seriously affect the flavor of the beer without the consumer knowing why. When those people taste the resulting unpleasant flavors, they are bound to blame one of two institutions: the shop that filled their growler or the brewery that made the beer.
Another key issue with growlers is freshness. Because the beer leaving the tap is exposed to much higher levels of oxygen than properly bottled or canned beer filled by machines, it is susceptible to oxidation. Oxidation gives beer a sort of wet cardboard or honey/nutty sherry-like flavor, depending on the way the compounds in the beer interact with the oxygen. For the chemistry-inclined, fusel alcohols acetaldehyde and trans-2-nonenal are the most common compounds responsible for off-flavors associated with oxidation. While oxidation eventually happens to every beer, it does so much faster when beer is exposed to more oxygen. Commercial filling machines used by breweries usually have a process that purges the majority of the oxygen in bottles, cans or growlers — something your average bar simply cannot replicate.
To avoid both of these problems, you can do a few things. First off, it is important that consumers make sure they have at least rinsed, if not washed, their growlers before bringing them in for a refill. If possible, this should be done immediately after the growler is finished so that nothing funky has time to fester in the remaining residue. You should also consume the contents of a personal growler in a much more timely fashion than you would a bottle or commercially-filled growler (though taking 64 ounces of 9 percent imperial IPA straight to the face right after you get home certainly isn't necessary — and may lead to poor life choices). Finally, you need to finish a growler pretty quickly once it's been opened. Like an open bottle of wine, growlers just don't keep well. I would recommend doing so within 24 hours if possible.
If properly filled and stored, growlers are an excellent vessel for craft beer. They are economical, often costing a fraction of the price per ounce of a commercially-filled bottle, and they allow beer fans to take home a wide variety of brews that may have been harder to find previously. The key is understanding how to responsibly care for them so that the beer you're drinking is the beer the brewers and retailers intended you to have.