Choosing the Best Growlers, Kegs & Portable Containers for Your Brewery

By: Alyssa Ochs

There’s something wholesome and satisfying about pulling up a barstool or sitting at a table at your favorite brewery and sipping a local craft beer right onsite where it was brewed. However, consumer demand is driving more breweries to offer their beer in portable ways so that beer lovers can take their favorite brews home and on the go.

To address this growing demand, this article will discuss the various options available to breweries for growlers, kegs, and other portable containers. With the insights and input from experts who work in this industry, we’ll also share key considerations to think about when choosing new to-go vessels for your beer business.

The Basics of Portable Containers

The concept of transporting beer in to-go containers is nothing new, but that certainly doesn’t mean that exciting innovations aren’t happening in this industry. Craft breweries of all sizes and types offer their beer in growlers and smaller-size crowlers, which are poured through a tap system and used to preserve beer for a few days up to a few weeks or even longer for personal use. Meanwhile, over 60 million gallons of beer are sold in kegs each year because these vessels are larger, durable, and perfect for parties.

While these are the two main types of portable containers used by craft breweries today, there are other portable container options available to breweries as well. For example, pressurized beer growler kegs have a double-walled design to keep beer cold and carbonated, and pressurized growlers can keep beer fresh for about two weeks. Growler Chill devices are specially designed to extend the life of draft beer, while Hydro Flask offers 40-ounce insulated growlers, and jockey boxes come equipped with stainless steel coils or cold plates, shanks, faucets, CO2 regulators, CO2 tank and beer line connectors, and perhaps even drain trays and cup holders.

Of course, this is all in addition to the onsite sale of bottles and cans. The 22-ounce bomber bottles or 750-milliliter bottles have been increasingly popular with breweries as a way to enabling consumers to take their beer off-site.

“Breweries use these for high-ABV beers like barrel-aged, double IPA’s, imperial stouts, sours, or any other special releases they may have,” said Lance Taylor, the Field Sales Manager for the North Central Region at Boelter Beverage. “There is a huge market for these. It’s also common for these bottles to be topped with wax.”

However, the newest and most creative portable containers are often geared towards use by the end consumer rather than the brewery itself.

“If a brewery is interested in transporting their beer for off-premise consumption, the usual cans, kegs, jockey box, or growler options are likely the best option,” pointed out Kevin Olmstead, the president of Instant Kegs in West Sacramento, California.

Portable Container Sizes

One of the first main things to think about when choosing new portable containers for your brewery is size. There are two main keg sizes: the 1/2 barrel (15.5 gallons) and the 1/6 barrel (5.16 gallons). Additionally, there are some less-standard keg sizes, such as the 1/4 barrel. For growlers, the standard size is 64 ounces, but half growers of 32 ounces each are common in many breweries. One-liter and two-liter growler options are available as well.

Quantity Considerations for Portable Containers

In terms of quantity considerations, breweries can choose between open-system kegs and closed-system kegs. To determine the number of kegs needed, consider who is distributing them, the distance of distribution, and how many keg sizes you want to offer. Breweries also must decide whether to use new kegs or used kegs for the desired functionality and for cost savings purposes. For growlers, breweries should remember that many local customers will reuse their old growlers many times before buying new ones and that visiting customers may bring in growlers purchased at a different brewery to fill up at your own establishment.

Materials for Portable Containers

With regard to materials, beer growlers are typically made from glass, stainless steel, or ceramic. Clear and amber-colored glass are popular for growlers, but glass can break easily, especially in a brewery setting. Stainless steel is durable for growlers but harder to fill and determine how much remains at the bottom. This material is popular for kegs as well. Ceramic growlers are much less common among breweries because they tend to be heavy and more expensive, and this material is breakable too. Plastic is a more inexpensive alternative for growlers and even smaller crowlers. Older kegs were often made from aluminum, but this is less common now as stainless steel has become the preferred keg material among brewers.

Beer Quality and Freshness

Both Boelter Beverage and Instant Kegs agree that quality and freshness are the most important factors for a brewery to consider when choosing growlers or kegs. Taylor of Boelter Beverage told Beverage Master Magazine that breweries may use their growler-filling machine and only sell pre-filled growlers to avoid this concern.

“Some breweries are concerned about light pollution tainting the flavor of beer and will avoid clear growlers,” Taylor said. “While some want to show off the color and ingredients that might filter into the beer and therefore find value in having the consumer see through a clear growler.”

“Some breweries avoid glass growlers completely because they believe beer won’t remain fresh long enough in growlers for the 64 ounces to be consumed,” Taylor went on to explain. “They will go with 32-ounce options only. Often, the 32-ounce option is a crowler, which is a large can filled on site and approximately 32 ounces depending on state laws. This crowler technology was actually developed, patented, and sold to other breweries by Oskar Blues of Canarchy.”

“There are a number of keg manufacturers from all over the world, and it is important for a brewery to be comfortable with the manufacturer and the warranty it will offer on its product,” said Olmstead of Instant Kegs. “Kegs are simply a vessel to store and sell a brewery’s product and should there be any problem with that vessel, a good manufacturer or keg retailer will step in to address any damage or replace any faulty products and lost revenue.”

Other Container Considerations

In addition to size, quantity, and material, there are additional factors to weigh when picking out new portable containers for your beer. For example, consider a container’s ease of cleaning, ability to be refilled, and potential to be returned to a brewery for credit. There is the issue of keg loss to consider because new kegs tend to cost at least $100 each, and kegs can be difficult to track without an effective management system in place.

In that regard, keg availability is a consideration because some retailers, manufacturers, and rental companies may have long lead times in delivering kegs to breweries.

“Oftentimes, these breweries are in a bind and need to fill an order or empty a tank and need the kegs as quickly as possible,” said Olmstead of Instant Kegs. “Breweries should make sure they are scheduling for their keg needs but also have a relationship with a reliable manufacturer or keg retailer they can trust to provide a quality product in a rush.”

Sanitation and cleanliness are of the highest importance, as well as usage recommendations for the best taste. For instance, it is typically recommended to consume beer in standard growlers within 24 hours of opening or within seven to 10 days after filling if unopened. Additionally, the style of beer and brewing method used can influence a brewery’s decision about growler purchases.

“More traditional brewers will often choose flip-top growlers,” said Taylor of Boelter Beverage. “If a brewery has a niche style of brewing, like German, English, Belgian, etc., it will be more interested in an ‘old style’ growler.”

Regardless of beer type, it is important to know local laws governing portable container fills, such as whether a growler can be filled onsite that displays another brewery’s name on it and whether simply rinsing a growler in hot water is sufficient for health code purposes. Since portable containers offer valuable branding and marketing opportunities with the containers’ labeling and design, this is a container consideration too.

Choosing the Best Portable Containers

Certain features of portable containers are very important to modern craft breweries, with particular sizes, materials, artwork, and closures becoming increasingly popular. For growlers, the most popular sizes are the 64-ounce and 32-ounce, although the 128-ounce growler is now available from stainless steel growler manufacturers.

“Many breweries try to differentiate by using more than one color on the growler and trying to get a full wrap print on them,” said Taylor of Boelter Beverage. “Engraving can be done on Hydro Flask growlers, and all of this can be done by Boelter.”

Taylor also told Beverage Master Magazine that powder coating is a nice way to decorate stainless steel growlers and that the bigger the print area the better for breweries to get as much brand exposure as possible.

For kegs, customizations if the most popular feature among breweries right now.

“In the opinion of many, a keg is a keg is a keg,” said Olmstead of Instant Kegs. “However, the ability to customize a keg with a brewery’s logo, name, or artwork is important in any brewery’s consideration in purchasing, leasing or renting kegs.”

Since kegs can be difficult to track once they are placed into distribution, customization lends itself to increased certainty that a brewery will get its keg back once emptied by the customer.

“Customization of kegs can be done in a number of ways, but most breweries are interested in a permanent customization that can be applied quickly and at a minimal cost,” explained Olmstead of Instant Kegs. “For InstantKegs.com, we’ve applied a laser-etching technology to our keg customization menu, which allows us to quickly apply a two-dimensional logo in great detail on each keg very quickly.”

Even with all of these sometimes-tedious decisions to make, there are still so many benefits to offering growlers, kegs, and portable containers to your brewery customers. These vessels offer access to fresh draft beer from local breweries that isn’t necessarily sold in bottles and cans. They come in different sizes and types for consumers to choose from, offer marketing opportunities to advertise your brand, and are eco-friendly to help your beer company reduce its waste and environmental impact.

With all of the great options available on the market today, now is an exciting time to revamp your portable container strategy, and fortunately, there are some highly experienced companies, including Boelter Beverage and Instant Kegs, that are ready and willing to help you through that process.

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