Bread & Brew

by: COURTESY OF MAXWELL PR - McMenamins was a trend-setter in the use of growlers - large to-go bottles for brew - but several Portland-area bars and stores also feature them nowadays.The other day, I went into a local convenience store and walked out with a jug of fresh-poured beer.

The 39th Street Mini Mart is one of the latest Portland businesses to jump on the growler bandwagon. They’ve got a dozen taps pouring beer that isn’t readily available in cans or bottles. You bring in a container (standard growler size, 64 ounces, or a smaller 32-ounce “growlette”) or buy one at the store, and the man behind the counter fills it for you. Prices are reasonable — and I also got a coupon for a free Coke with the purchase of any deli sandwich.

It feels illicit, walking out into the parking lot with a little brown jug, but it’s fine, as long as you don’t rip off the red tape over the cap that makes it legal to take it home in your car.

Lately, growler fill stations have been popping up all over. Zupan’s Markets just added one to their Belmont Street store. There’s a new spot on Southwest Macadam Avenue called NW Growlers, and another called the Tin Bucket on North Williams Avenue. The Tin Bucket’s filling station is licensed by a national company called the Growler Station that has temporarily put the brakes on its program, according to the website, “due to an overwhelming number of requests.” And the Bend-based Growler Guys has staked out a storefront on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.

Loosely speaking, a growler is a to-go container for beer. The assumption is that it’s used for craft brews, and typically for beer that’s not available in cans or bottles. In the early days of the microbrew movement, they were popularized by places such as the McMenamins pubs, that didn’t bottle their beer.

Back then, the beer was usually poured into a big, wide-mouthed jar — the kind pickled eggs come in. These days, the growler is a bit more sophisticated. Most brew pubs have branded containers that you can buy and then refill, and it’s a generally recognized courtesy to fill a competitor’s jug.

Two local companies also make super high-end growlers. The Portland Growler Company sells charmingly old-fashioned, hand-crafted ceramic jugs, including a line with handles that look like bike sprockets. At the other end of the spectrum, the Zythos Project is testing a “modular growler system” that includes stainless steel vessels, a trademarked cap, and a kit that allows you to inject carbon dioxide into the bottle to retain carbonation.

Beer outlets also are experimenting with various technologies to deal with the obvious downside of beer-to-go: sooner or later, the beer goes flat.

The Tin Bucket has a set of mad-scientist cylindrical chambers in which the entire growler is placed, purged of oxygen, and then filled.

Imperial, a new bottle shop on Southeast Division Street, uses beer guns — the same things a home brewer uses to fill bottles. They purge the growler of oxygen, then fill it from the bottom up, reducing foam, says Alex Kurnellas, who owns the bar with his partner, Shawn Stackpoole.

Kurnellas estimates that 10 to 15 percent of his beer sales are growler fills. Since he’s only been in business for a month, he doesn’t have any evidence that growler fills are becoming more (or less) popular, but he does point out another of their advantages: they’re sustainable. Yes, you can recycle bottles and cans, but regular growler use saves the energy that recycling uses.

Of course, that’s if you remember to keep bringing back your growler. I have a feeling bars may be making more money on the growlers than on the beer inside them, which can go for between $10 and $20 for a 64-ounce fill, depending on the place and the beer.

Of course, a growler is only as exciting as the beer inside it. For that, technology steps in in a different way. Businesses that focus on growler fills also should, and usually do, make a point of keeping their tap lists updated online. So if you’re planning a quick stop-off on your way home from work, you know what you’re getting into.

And that seems to me to be the real niche for growlers: people who love craft beer but don’t live right in the city. I’m lucky enough to have numerous bars and bottle shops within walking distance of my house, but if I lived out in the country, I’m sure I’d be using my new jug often. As it is, it saved me a trip to St. Johns for some Occidental hefeweizen, which really hit the spot at the end of a long day.

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