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.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.