If you frequent craft breweries or taphouses, you’ve probably become quite familiar with the Crowler™. Standing at 32 ounces, the large single-use fillable can emerged into the market in 2012, created by Ball Canning in partnership with Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado. Oskar Blues is considered the first craft brewery to release its beer in 12 ounce cans, which they pioneered in 2002 using a small tabletop device that filled one can at a time. Since then canned craft beer has truly exploded, pushing larger production breweries to invest in their own canning lines and inspiring an entire sector of mobile canning services which many smaller breweries are able to utilize.
64 ounce and 32 ounce glass growlers haven’t gone away, and most breweries will either offer them for sale pre-filled or will fill customers’ own on demand. However, for certain times, Crowlers™ have become the preferred choice: such as during a pandemic, where filling reusable containers is considered unsafe and unsanitary. In fact, because so many breweries have switched over to using far more Crowlers™ than they ever imagined in order to make up for diminished taproom and retail keg sales, the Crowler™ can backstock has become incredibly depleted, causing a 3-4 week minimum turnaround on orders in the past several months, and some discussion still bubbles about the possibility of running out of cans entirely. This is obviously an unsustainable situation, and I assume demand will remain high for some time after current restrictions are loosened or lifted. While the Crowler™ has become a de facto choice for many consumers and breweries, it is not without drawbacks of its own. Let’s break down some of those here.
First, a few pros.
- Crowlers™ allow breweries and shops to package very fresh beer as desired by the customer. No middle-man distribution company keeping cases of cans in the back corner of their warehouse for far too long.
- Crowlers™ allow breweries to sell packaged canned beer without purchasing a canning line or using mobile canning services.
- Crowlers™ are super lightweight and ideal for traveling, backpacking, boating, camping, etc. While lighter weight stainless steel growlers do exist, most breweries and customers still use glass which is far cheaper.
- If filled correctly, Crowlers™ have the same timeline for consumption as growlers–generally 1-4 days, depending on who you ask (I stick to two, in an ideal world).
- Crowlers™ are recyclable, probably more so than glass (depending on where you live).
Now, the negatives.
- Crowlers™ are not reusable like growlers and thus are inherently wasteful, despite their recyclability. Recycling is great, but it still takes energy, time, labor and fossil fuel.
- Crowlers™ are not very durable and are more likely to puncture or burst in transport (backpacks, cars, etc) than 12 ounce cans or glass vessels.
- Crowlers™ require a tabletop machine sealer to seam the lids on. The machine is not a huge footprint, but it still requires additional cost, staff training and regular repair.
- Crowler™ seamers are known to be finicky and tend to break often which is not only frustrating but costly and potentially highly disruptive to sales.
- Many users do not properly fill or seal Crowlers™. In an ideal situation, each can will be flushed with CO2 to displace oxygen prior to filling. This allows for a less foamy fill, hopefully less waste, and the least amount of headspace possible within the can. Too much oxygen will lead to a faster staling process. Oskar Blues does include a purge “station” with the seamer, but some breweries neglect to connect this to gas.
- Many breweries or shops keep pre-filled Crowlers™ for far too long before selling, which leaves the customer with a subpar product.
- Because consumers see the Crowler™ as merely a large can, they are not as likely to drink it within the proper window of freshness, and may hang onto them for weeks or months as if they were just like cans from a commercial quality canning line operation, which typically has standards in place to maintain proper fill levels and low rates of dissolved oxygen.
The takeaway here is that while Crowlers™ are highly useful products, they are not always the best package for every job and their usefulness depends greatly on proper staff training, correct equipment and customer education. I’m grateful for Crowlers™ in this strange time of pandemic because I can still support my favorite local small breweries, many of whom are running out of glass growlers or are selling mainly Crowlers™. I still prefer other package types personally and will choose them whenever I can. Until I’m able to return to my favorite type of package–a full pint in a sunny spot on the patio of a beer garden–I’m satisfied with whatever package choices my local breweries provide.
Images from absolutebeer.com and oktoberdesign.com.