I'm not sure where this should fall on the spectrum of pride to shame, but it has been years since I've tapped a keg. Raging house parties aren't quite as frequent in the years after college, but drinking delicious beer at home for a little take-the-edge-off tipsy pleasure remains a pastime for, well—a lot of us.
There are a few convenient means to get our fix; bottles and cans certainly suffice. But we're in a golden age of breweries at the moment, and more than 99% of the 3,000 lager slingers dotting the United States are independently owned and operated. If you want something more refined (and more tasty) than Bud, you can find it on draft far and wide. And the only way to get those special drinks home from many of those micro-joints is in a growler.
Growlers are basically big glass (or occasionally ceramic) jugs you bring into—or buy from—a brewery. They get filled up right there where the delicious brew is made, and allow you to tote your favorite un-bottled, un-canned drafts back to your very own fridge.
The general consensus is that growlers should be finished in a single sitting. Think of them like a two-liter bottle of soda or other fizzy stuff. You don't have to drink it down in one pull, but the longer it's been opened—even if the cap is screwed back on tightly—the flatter it gets. The flatter it gets, the less fresh it tastes. The less fresh it tastes… duh. Old, stale beer ain't good, no matter what special ingredients it's made up of or how carefully it was developed. This, my thirsty friends—this is where the GrowlTap comes in.
The GrowlTap is very much what it sounds like: A tap for your growler. It works on the same principle as a keg, controlling the release of beer through (re)pressurization. It's made up of a few key component parts: a black plastic screw-top with attached tubing and tap faucet; a CO2-grade cylinder and corresponding (bright yellow!) casing; and a lead-free brass one-quarter-inch compression fitting. It wasn't necessarily built for beauty but it comes together well.
If you've got enough space in your fridge for a growler—these babies are not exactly small—then attaching this thing on top is not going to make a major difference, real estate-wise. The pieces fit as they should, with quick and minimal assembly. It was designed to fit most 64- and 128-ounce screw-top growlers, which is a common size but take heed of this Important Note: Not all growlers are 64- and 128- ounce screw tops. I learned this the hard way after a few failed attempts at tracking down one of my own.
The GrowlTap is like some kind of industrial glass slipper that promises a happily ever after if only it can find its perfect fit, and—finally—the Cellarmaker Brewing Company in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood became my boozy Cinderella. It had a whole stash of 64-ounce growlers for sale, empty and waiting for a draft of my choosing, and a pale wheat beer called Bucket of Truth.
I bought three growlers: One to tap, one to compare (taste-wise), and one to see how an unopened growler holds up.
I also had a pint of the hoppy stuff at the bar for reference, and it was delicious: crisp and cold with a bit of a kick—pretty much the perfect after-work drink for a sunny Tuesday summer evening.
The step-by-step instructions were super straightforward and simple to follow, and after a few twists and tightens, I managed to pull off GrowlTap installation without any hitches.
It said a "feather touch" was needed on the CO2 button for the first pour. I practiced a few thumb maneuvers in the air before bracing myself for the real deal.
"Tssssshh." There was the sound of sweet release when I actually pressed the button—gently, natch.
I stuck the little faucet into my glass and readied myself, but I wasn't exactly prepared for the rush of foam. I fumbled a bit and managed to get a decent amount on my countertop. The first glass was almost all head at first, but it settled down into a decent looking pint of beer.
How did it taste? Good! Great, even. Granted, this was the day after I brought it back, so the non-GrowlTapped version was also very nice—but the clock was ticking.*
The un-GrowlTapped growler was still holding strong on day two. There was a satisfying hiss when I screwed open the cap, although no head when I poured the beer. But it was still fizzy, with that bitey tang I remembered from the very first glass back at the brewery. Meanwhile, the GrowlTap glass had a nice little head and was equally enjoyable.
Day four was when things really started to diverge. The GrowlTapper was still on point, but the other was significantly sadder: barely bubbly, with a thicker taste that just wasn't great. I can't fauly Cellarmaker, because I knew going in that there was a very firmly suggested expiration date that I had already blown by. At this point I knew there was no salvaging the rest of that jug.
After a week, I finally unscrewed the GrowlTap and poured the last little bit of beer into my cup. It was still a solid brew. Was it straight-from-the-barkeep brisk? Tough to be definitive here, but I also cracked the third, as-yet-unopened growler and the quality was totally comparable. They were both infinitely drinkable.
*Should anyone else ever decide to do a comparison test like this, I'd suggest pouring your two glasses at the same time and start things off by alternating sips because if you go for a whole glass of one before starting the other, your senses, ahem, won't be quite as sharp to tell the difference between the two.
The GrowlTap is fun to use—like your very own teensy weensy grownup kegger. Setup is easy, and once it's on there's a vibe that's definitely more exciting than lazily popping the top off (another) bottle from the corner store.
Also, as a single person who lives alone, I appreciate the ability to mete out measured servings of alcohol that correspond to my actual thirst level. In this context, a GrowlTap-less growler is like the beer equivalent of a bottle of wine (only bigger): Once it's open, you either have to commit to a somewhat quick succession of boozy nights before the stuff has a chance to go intolerably bad, or go the distance in one sitting so the stuff doesn't even have the opportunity to go marginally bad. If I had a dollar for every half-full bottle of bad red I dumped down the sink… well, I'd probably have enough to buy a GrowlTap.
So, about those failed attempts to track down compatible growlers: Even in a city like SF that prides itself on the kind of artisanal foodie elitism that often make the rest of the country roll its collective eyes, I had a tough time finding spots that sold the right kind of growler that this gizmo would fit. This was an unexpected hurdle. The first place I went was sold out. The second were too small by half. The third had models with a swing, not threaded, top, and when I called the first to see if they were stocked up again, it turns out theirs weren't the right model either. Sheesh.
Still, if that sounds like a sobering pain in the ass, there's also the option to buy your own growler online for around $10 (with a dark-hued glass to protect from skunkage via UV rays—never clear) and bring it to a bar or brewery yourself, but again, take heed of this additional Important Note: Some places won't fill up something you didn't buy on-site, and some will refuse to refill if they don't think what you've brought fits their standards for cleanliness.
The moral of the story here is that you're going to have to do a little homework before busting out your credit card and getting wasted at the delightfully slow pace the GrowlTap can affod. Yelping "growlers" near you then picking up the phone to clarify some of the particulars takes a quick minute and can save you a lot of time in the end.
One last Important Note: When I put my GrowlTap back in the fridge, beer would verrrrrrry slowly but verrrry surely leak out around where the nozzle connected, slow drip by slow drip, until a small puddle had collected on the shelf below. Had I kept anything in there except, well, more beer, than I might have had some groceries ruined. It turns out you just need to make sure all the beer is out of the tube. I got the hang of it just about the time I ran out of beer, but I imagine it gets more natural with practice.
Should I Buy It?
If you're a regular craft beer drinker and growler aficionado, this $45 investment will definitely extend the life of your brew and keep you drowning in as many craft drafts as you can fit in your fridge. I am a newbie to the growler scene, but could definitely see myself committing to more in my future—when I have the time to visit Cellarmaker (and free hands to carry them back to my pad). Prices on the actual growler themselves vary, but you could plan on spending about $20 to $25 for one—which includes the growler itself, taken out of the price of the next refill—per visit.
You'll have to keep re-upping on the CO2 cartridge when yours runs out of gas, but one is meant to last for at least five growlers, so that will definitely start—and keep—you buzzing for a while yet. [GrowlTap]