The uKeg growler keeps beer cold and uses automated systems to keep it carbonated. (uKeg)

The uKeg growler keeps beer cold and uses automated systems to keep it carbonated. (uKeg)

The new breed of growlers prevent the heartbreak of flat beer

These jugs are a big part of the craft brewing scene — and they’re much more than brown glass bottles.

Take a few minutes and walk the aisles of Norm’s Market in Lake Stevens, and one thing quickly becomes clear: The owner takes beer very seriously.

On the outside, the store looks like a typical mini mart. Inside, it’s a craft beer lover’s idea of heaven.

Cans and bottles — some from obscure breweries on the East Coast — line coolers, shelves and walk-in fridges. So many, in fact, that some are just haphazardly placed in various spots around the store, waiting for a thirsty customer intrigued by the weird label to grab it and take it home.

But it’s the 60-plus beers, ciders and kombuchas on tap that really sets owner Shane McDaniel’s store apart. Not simply for the number of beers, but also the fact they’re even there.

The growler law

McDaniel isn’t one to sit and wait for a problem to solve itself. When he discovered that mini marts were prohibited from filling growlers, he started making phone calls. One was to state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. Hobbs was a sympathetic ear, and he soon crafted legislation to fix the problem.

McDaniel went to Olympia. He testified before the Legislature. Later, he was there in 2011 when then-Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the bill into law allowing specialty wine and beer shops the ability to fill growlers, which are half-gallon, refillable containers.

McDaniel hosted a media event in which he and Hobbs filled growlers from 50 taps of fresh beer. They toasted to their success.

That was eight years ago. Since then, growlers have become big business. The vast majority of growlers McDaniel filled that summer day were of the brown glass jug variety, the classic 64-ounce “growler.” It’s what your dad thinks of when you say you’re filling a growler with beer.

Growlers today are sleek, oxygen-defying hulls for craft beer goodness. They’re vacuum-sealed, stainless steel and come with a pressurized CO2 cap to keep oxygen out and continuously maintain pressure. They come in all sizes, from tiny pint growlers to 2 liters. In other words, science got a hold of the growler and made it better.

From glass jug to uKeg

The apocryphal story of how the growler got its name can be traced back to the late 19th century, when beer-thirsty pub visitors toted their ale home in a lidded pail. According to Beer Advocate, the pail emitted a rumbling sound; that was CO2 leaking out as the beer sloshed around.

Later, glass and ceramic growlers became the norm. Round at the bottom and tapering into a thin neck like a jug, these growlers came with a small handle near the top for carrying. In Germany, they were ornate pieces of art, with flip-top caps and giant metal handles.

Over the past two decades, growler laws relaxed in the U.S. as craft breweries exploded in numbers. The result was mass innovation. Stainless steel. Double-wall insulation. Vacuum-sealed to keep oxygen out. Slick, cutting-edge and technologically advanced, these aren’t your father’s growlers.

The apex of growler innovation is called the uKeg. Priced starting at $169, uKegs are mini, pressurized kegs of beer. They come with their very own pressure gauge, tap and cap, with CO2 technology similar to refillable whipped cream dispensers. The variable pressure regulation cap makes sure to keep oxygen out and CO2 in the keg, helping maintain a desirable level of carbonation.

The uKeg answers the question every growler enthusiast has asked throughout history: How do you keep the beer from going flat? Once the seal is punctured in traditional growlers, the beer goes flat after about 24 hours, making it a race to down 64 ounces of beer as fast as possible. With a uKeg, you don’t have to race the clock.

Another option is Drink Tanks, which sells 64- or 128-ounce stainless steel growlers. Along with its classic flip-top cap, Drink Tanks has a keg cap feature that includes a pour spout and a CO2 interchange so canisters can inject CO2 right into the growler, promising to keep the beer bubbly for an extra few days.

The dawn of the ‘crowler’

Since McDaniel helped pass legislation opening up the growler market, small mini marts and beverage shops around the state have popped up. They promise a taplist that could rival the snootiest craft beer taprooms around.

But as growlers have changed, so has the business. “Crowlers,” or 32-ounce, fillable cans, have become the next big thing.

Crowlers are easier to transport, stay fresher longer and make it easier for customers to pick and choose what they want. It doesn’t mean growlers are out, but it does mean the market has shifted.

McDaniel said he’s seen it first-hand.

“I’ve seen so many shops open up advertising 50 taps and then shut it down a few months later,” said McDaniel, who recently installed a crowler machine in his store. “You have to be strategic when you dive into this market. You can’t just say you have so many taps of so much beer. You have to know what beer sells and what beer doesn’t. You have to know the next big thing in beer.”

The next big thing for McDaniel? To become the biggest and best. He has plans to increase his taplist to more than 200.

“I want to have more tap handles than anyone else,” McDaniel said. “You have to always be moving, getting better to stay ahead of the other guys. That’s the key to success in the craft beer business.”

Where to fill your growler

Here’s a look at the best places to fill your growler that you might never have thought of.

Norm’s Market and Bottleshop. Lake Stevens’ Norms Market, 10027 Lundeen Park Way, offers more than 50 beers and ciders on tap and has eight kombuchas on tap as well. Open 24 hours. Call 425-334-4646.

Tulalip Market. Just off the 116th Street exit of I-5, Tulalip Market, 2832 116th St. NE, Tulalip, has 50 beers on tap. Open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 360-716-3241.

Whistle Stop. Don’t let this small deli fool you. Everett’s Whistle Stop offers 30 hard-to-find beers on tap. The store at 5626 134th Place SE, Suite A, Everett, is open 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Call 425-337-6533.

Washington North Coast Magazine

This article is featured in the summer issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.

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