By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The sparkling idea old Joe Priestley had back in 1767 didn't reach its most useful purpose until 2014.
It was 247 years ago when the chemist, who lived next to a brewery and began experimenting with their gas in Leeds, England, made carbonated water. But he stopped there. Making draft beer portable would have to wait.
As you know, beer naturally carbonates during fermentation; yeast eats sugar, making alcohol and carbon dioxide. Problem is that when you take the beer out of the barrel, air gets in and spoils the brew. So to take Joe’s discovery a step further, someone would need to fill that empty space in a barrel with what was called “fixed air” and preserve the freshness. Eventually this would lead to kegs — big kegs for taverns and pubs, pony kegs, Cornelius kegs, none of which are very portable. They are heavy and require attached external devices to get the beer out. But jump ahead to modern times at a bar in Portland and you’ll find another option.
“To keep good beer from going bad.” That’s what I told the guy on the stool next to me when he asked why I paid $149 for the stainless steel uKeg the ponytailed bartender at the Widmer Pub in North Portland was filling with Altbier. When I went on to explain that the uKeg is easy to use and keeps beer fresh for up to two weeks, he chuckled and said, “Who keeps beer around that long?” So, I asked him, “Haven't you ever had a beer you wanted to enjoy a little at a time, a seasonal release or, maybe, after you fill a growler you don’t feel like drinking it all in a couple of days?” “Well,” he said, “how do they keep beer fresh in that big can?”
This is where a trip to an Oregon beach comes in.
“I brought a glass growler and a cooler.” Standing in the front office of GrowlerWerks in Southeast Portland, Shawn Huff recalls how inspiration for the uKeg came from the good beer he’d put in his glass growler. “It was a Boneyard RPM IPA. I drank it one day, put it down, didn't drink the second day and then pulled it back out on the third day. It was flat. It was oxidized. All the work the brewer put into that IPA was ruined.”
So, I was thinking — pressurized growler,” Shawn Huff explains. “I saw some other people were doing it, but no one really from an engineering design perspective.”
Engineers! Brewers get a lot of attention. But who knows the engineers? Meet three you should know: Huff, Brian Sonnichsen and Evan Rege. (Evan was at a manufacturing plant in China when I visited the GrowlerWerks research-and-development warehouse.) Brian explains they met while working for ClearEdge Power, an alternative-energy company. He says Shawn’s idea for a pressurized growler came at just the right time.
“ClearEdge Power went out of business as we were working on this as an after-hours hobby, trying to figure out how to make it work.” Brian has a degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 13 patents to his credit. Evan has a UC Berkeley degree in mechanical design and knows how to build fuel cells. Shawn owns four patents and is a chemical engineer; but, just as important, he won a business plan competition in college. All of that schooling and experience set them up for a dive into entrepreneurship. Brian says they figured, “What the heck? Let’s try this for six months because we can. There’s a program in Oregon that will let you start a business and you don’t have to look for a job for six months. It worked out fantastically.”
Some of the technology involved in making the uKeg is confidential and now being patented in both the U.S. and overseas. But when Brian and Shawn share what they can about how the uKeg works, it sounds simple.
“This is a double-walled, insulated vessel, so it keeps beer cold.” Shawn points out the first thing you’ll probably notice about the uKeg is a brass pipe climbing from the bottom of the vessel to a mini-tap at the top. “We go through the vessel so the beer exits from the bottom.”
Putting the tap on top means they can store a CO2 cartridge inside the variable pressure-regulation cap. “What that allows is you can put the top on, and once it is on you can set this dial and it automatically maintains your carbonation level. So all you have to do is pour.”
Thumbing through the owner’s manual that comes with the uKeg, Brian points out various carbonation settings, from 6 pounds per square inch (PSI) for stout, porter and cream ale to 12 PSI for lager, pilsner or even kombucha. A window on what they call the “sight tube” shows how much beer is in the uKeg. You can check it before you grab the brass handle provided for making your fresh draft beer portable.
“Our brand,” Brian reminds us, “is keeping beer fresh and being able to take it with you.”
Joe Priestley would be proud.
The GrowlerWerks trio has encountered some interesting liquor laws as they’ve moved into new markets. In Florida, there was a law allowing for gallon-sized growler fills, but not half-gallon sizes. In another state, the tap on a freshly filled growler had to be shrink-wrapped to prevent customers from pouring while driving. And when beer drinkers in Japan received the growlers they were due as part of the Kickstarter campaign, they found that Japanese law does not allow for growler fills.
For more information on the uKeg, go to growlerwerks.com.
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Nicholas Hill just wanted his beer to taste good.
“I couldn’t find a growler available on the market that could keep your beer cold and fresh,” says Hill. “I found my growlers going flat faster than I could drink them, which was very frustrating.”
He began to wonder: What would it take to have a growler that kept beer cold, fresh and carbonated?
At the time, Hill and his father Timothy co-owned a water bottle company. That experience gave them an idea for a new type of growler, which was developed by founding Bend-based DrinkTanks in 2013. Now with two successful Kickstarter campaigns and four products, DrinkTanks has brought to fruition two insulated, stainless-steel growlers that can keep beverages hot for up to 12 hours, cold for up to 24 hours and fresh for up to a week.
DrinkTanks products are powder-coated, engraved, designed and assembled in Bend by a staff of 18 humans and one canine, Paisley, “The Shop Guardian.” Timothy Hill passed away in 2011, but Nicholas Hill knows “he’d be proud of what DrinkTanks is today.”
“We’re committed to supporting our local economy, and with the help of previous Kickstarter backers, we were able to create 10 new jobs in 2014,” says Hill. “Bringing most of our production work in-house, we are also able to ensure that our products adhere to the highest quality control standards. Our goal is to create a product worthy of your beer.”
The Growler That’s a Keg
Flagship BPA-free growlers are available in 64-ounce (classic) and 128-ounce (The Juggernaut) sizes. The double-walled, vacuum-insulated, dishwasher-safe growlers are secured by a leak-proof, dual-bail cap system, and are designed not to pick up or impart flavors from materials or from whatever was last in the growler. Keg Caps are the company’s secret weapon to keep beer fresh, carbonated and unspoiled by oxidation. “It can usually stretch out a growler for three to five days after it has been opened,” says Hill. “We’ve even had some of our customers write in to tell us it lasted seven days or more.”
New for 2016, Kegulator Auto-Regulating Keg Caps also turn any DrinkTanks Growler into “personal, portable kegs,” a feature that’s been enjoyed by early adopters in the homebrewing community for force-carbonating up to a gallon of homebrew. Kegulator caps are compatible with 16 gram and 74 gram CO2 cartridges, and an adjustable dial and pounds per square inch (PSI) gauge lets you control carbonation from 0-40 PSI. A purge valve keeps oxygen out, and a hose dispenses from the bottom of the growler.
While built primarily with craft beer in mind, DrinkTanks growlers can also carry hot drinks such as coffee, cocoa and tea, along with other chilled or cellar-temperature beverages such as wine, spirits, sodas and kombucha.
DrinkTanks are available in brushed stainless steel or 15 stock colors, with custom colors, laser engraving and screen printing also available.
Kickstarted Into Gear
DrinkTanks found social proof for its products and mission early on. On March 13, 2013, the company launched a campaign on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to raise capital for production of its classic 64-ounce growler. Seeking $30,000, the project closed on Apr. 15, 2013 with 1,959 backers pledging $236,772.
“Every Kickstarter campaign brings the challenge of bringing a new product or service to market,” says Hill. “I would guess most Kickstarter creators don’t take into account what happens in the aftermath. It’s often hard to tell whether you’ve created a company or a nightmare.”
The successful campaign did bring in more money — but it also brought in new challenges and higher expectations.
The aftermath of the first campaign saw the young company facing manufacturing and supply issues. “I made the decision right away that we wouldn’t compromise on the quality or integrity of our product, and because of that, we delivered late on the first Kickstarter campaign,” says Hill. “We did our best to keep our backers informed during this process by implementing a weekly update. I believe managing the supply chain is key. We have been very fortunate to have a team of talented individuals as well as a community that has been very supportive of what we’re doing.”
In 2015, DrinkTanks was ready to bring their 128-ounce Juggernaut to market, and they decided to turn to Kickstarter again. This time they sought $75,000, and launched the campaign on March 2. Three days later, they posted this:
“We’ve hit our funding goal on our third day of being live!”
By the time the campaign closed on April 9, 2,076 backers had pledged $304,142. Now DrinkTanks is fulfilling supporter orders as well as orders from the general public. Word is even actor Tom Hanks has one, and in 2015 DrinkTanks was also named the Official Beer Growler of Central Oregon Beer Week.
“The joy of being a Kickstarter-launched company,” says Hill, “is that it’s gained us a worldwide group of supporters who’ve helped get us where we are today.
To date, DrinkTanks has shipped more than 45,000 64-ounce growlers and more than 28,000 Keg Caps. Juggernauts began shipping in September. The Kegulator will be available to backers and the public in January, but other DrinkTanks products are in stock for the holidays.
In the Wild
DrinkTanks customers have run a wide gamut, says Hill, from the weekend beer drinkers taking beer to a friend’s house to watch the game, to homebrewers force-carbonating small batches of brew. “We’ve also heard really good feedback from people who like to take their beer into the outdoors,” says Hill.
“The homebrewing community is very passionate about beer and has supported us from day one,” he adds. “They tend to really zero in on the technology and quality of our products — not that the average consumer wouldn’t — but they tend to be first adopters of new craft beer technology.” Customers point to the guaranteed no-leak lid, a threshold of 70-pounds of pressure and a lifetime warranty on manufacturer defects as positives.
Hill also carries his favorite beers in DrinkTanks growlers. “This time of year you’ll usually find my growler filled with Snake Bite Porter from Silver Moon, Black Butte Porter from Deschutes Brewery or Lights Out Stout from Worthy Brewing.”
Currently, DrinkTanks products are available to order from its website, on Amazon.com, in more than 250 growler refilling stations and breweries throughout the region and at more than 100 outdoor retail stores and websites nationally, such as Sportsman’s Warehouse and Backcountry.com.
For Hill, he is focused on continuing to grow the company and pursue the perfection of their perfect growler. “I love that my beer will stay fresh all week,” says Hill. “When I fill my growler on Monday and get caught up with work until Thursday, my beer is still fresh.”
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