Growlers: purr-fect jugs to lug beer home


August 21, 1991|By ROB KASPER

Who put the "growl" in my growler? I wanted to know.

A "growler" is the name of the half-gallon jug I use to carry my fresh draft beer home from pubs that make their own beer.

I have two such containers, one from Sisson's restaurant in South Baltimore, which makes its own ales. And one from the Baltimore Brewing Company near Little Italy, an establishment that makes its own lagers.

Since I finally got a handle on the distinction between ales and lagers -- ales use yeasts that rise to the top of a kettle of beer and take about 7-10 days to come to fruition; lagers' yeasts fall to the bottom of the kettle and can take 4 weeks before they are served -- I was ready to take on the origin of "growler."

At first, I thought this was going to be a rhetorical question. Somewhat like who threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder?

I found some background information on growlers, in What's Brewing, a newsletter sent out by the Baltimore Brewing Co. to announce it had begun selling containers of take-home beer. "Before Prohibition, in a time of kinder, gentler alcohol laws, local taverns were free to fill up just about any vessel a patron brought in with fresh draft beer for the customer to consume off-premises," the newsletter stated.

"These containers, most often referred to as 'growlers,' became popular with thirsty individuals who hadn't the time to linger in the taverns."

After reading this, I figured the container got its name from guys who were growling about the fact that they had to hurry home.

To find out, I went down to Baltimore Brewing Co. and asked Theo de Groen, brewmaster and owner of the operation, just who was hollering when.

As a native of the Netherlands, de Groen said he wasn't sure about American nicknames. But he said he was reasonably sure the appellation didn't come from complaining customers.

While I was there, I bought my growler. It is a handsome, dark brown, glass container, that holds 2 liters, almost a six-pack. It looks like a big beer bottle. But pouring from it is easy because it comes with a large steel handle. Moreover, the growler has a spring-loaded ceramic cap that lets me reseal the bottle.

Beer, of course, tastes best when it is fresh. That, along with the panache of having beer from your hometown, are the appealing aspects of buying beer by the growler. The drawback is that the beer does not keep very long. Once you open the growler, what you do not drink within about 48 hours will go flat.

The beer alone costs about the same as a high-quality domestic or imported brew. The container is reusable. At Baltimore Brewing, for instance, I paid $12.50 for the growler then filled it up with brew of my choice -- I picked the pils -- for an additional $6.50. When the growler is empty I take it back for a refill. The other day I had a choice of four different brews, a lager, a pils, a dark and a weizen, or wheat beer. (Baltimore Brewing Co. is closed for vacation until Friday. But from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. today, someone will be there to handle growlers. The thirsty are advised to call in advance.)

The system is the same at Sisson's, where I took my other growler, to fill up with some of the pub's own Stockade ale. There it cost $12 for both the vessel and the ale. Refills are $7. Brewmaster Hugh Sisson varies the ales he offers but often I get to choose among three beers: the lighter Marble Ale, the medium Stockade, or the dark porter.

Sisson didn't have answers either about the origin of "growler." I speculated that maybe the stomachs of thirsty beer drinkers had been growling. But he didn't bite.

Instead, he referred me to another restaurant, the Tap and Growler, in Chicago.

The first time I called the Tap and Growler I got growled at.

"We're in the lunch rush. We can't talk. Call back later," said a woman who answered the phone. The next time I called, I was serenaded. I talked to a woman named Dina, who when I asked her the origin of "growler," broke into song.

The song told of a "little old man" who went to a bar and yelled at a bartender for a beer. But the bartender replied "we can't fix you a growler" because it is Sunday, and beer sales weren't permitted.

It was a sad, sad song. So sad, I guess, that right after Dina sang it to me, she hung up, no doubt to compose herself.

I found out that nowadays if the "little old man" comes to Maryland on Sunday, his growler would have to go empty. The law forbids growler sales on Sunday.

These incidents reminded me that you can have a lot of fun at taverns, but you can't learn much.

So I turned from the taverns to the library. The information service of the Enoch Pratt Free Library found the answer.

The librarian I got on the phone found a reference to growler in the second supplement of the "Dictionary of American Slang," by Harold Wentword and Stuart Flexner (Thomas E. Crowell Co. 1975).

In the 1890s the word commonly referred to a bucket, can or pitcher used to carry beer home from the saloon, the book said.

The book also said that when the metal pail slides across a bar, it makes a noise. It "growled," hence the name.

So my quest had ended. The growl in growler came from the sound the vessel made when it traveled across the bar.

FTC While satisfying my curiosity, the news also left me with some disturbing thoughts.

My growlers, like most modern ones, were made of glass. And when I scooted them across the kitchen table, they didn't make any noise.

Does this then make me "the man whose growlers wouldn't growl?"

Or, worse yet, do I have to call them "scooters?"

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