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Innovation is a driving force in the craft beer industry. Brewers push the boundaries of what a beer can be with new flavors, new ingredients and new techniques. But innovative changes aren’t just found in how a beer tastes, they’re also found in how it’s packaged. If you love bringing home your favorite beers from your favorite breweries, it may be time to say “goodbye” to the growler, and “hello” to the Crowler, the newest innovation in take-out beer.

The Crowler is a one-use, recyclable 32-ounce can that is filled and seamed right at the bar. The can is sealed air-tight by a modified canning machine developed by Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery and its partner, Ball Corporation. Oskar Blues is the exclusive distributor of the Crowler machine, a logical extension of the brewery’s pro-can philosophy.

“We’re really big fans of cans and all the advantages of cans,” said Jeremy Rudolf, Production Manager. Those advantages include recyclability, an air-tight seal that preserves carbonation and an opaque package that keeps sunlight out. It is also cleaner than your usual growler.

“Growlers come from all these people who just empty their beer, rinse them out and throw them in the car and just grab them when they need to. That doesn’t do the beer any favors,” said Rudolf.

Bill White, owner of White Flame Brewing Company in Hudsonville, was the first brewer in Michigan to offer Crowlers. He was a believer from the first time he saw it.

“My wife and I participated in a festival in Chicago last summer. Someone popped open a cooler with these quart-sized beer cans in it and I was amazed. When we returned that week I looked it up and said, ‘How do I get one?’”

In just a couple of months, a Crowler machine was purchased, and White Flame patrons were introduced to the newest way to get craft beer on-the-go.

“It’s been a huge boost for to-go sales, for sure,” claimed White. “It’s more portable than the growler.  For us, going forward, we’re going to try to push the can package.”

The Crowler machine is a modified food-canning system for the home that’s small enough to fit on the counter behind the bar.

“We took an existing machine, and we kind of pulled the machine apart and built it back up and evolved it over the last year and made many improvements for these custom cans,” said Rudolf.  The machine also includes a CO2 purging station that removes any oxygen from the can before it’s filled with beer.

Oskar Blues has sold over 200 Crowler machines around the globe, including White Flame and Perrin Brewing Company, which Oskar Blues acquired in March.

The Perrin Crowlers have been well received by both novice and savvy clientele. Bobby Klene of Indianapolis was at Perrin on a brewery tour with his wife when he noticed the new, canned take-out option.

“I was excited when I came in and saw they had the Crowlers. The first thing I thought in my head was, ‘I’m getting that!’” Beer aficionados like Klene are also anxious to spread the Crowler gospel. “Oh yeah, it’s getting put on Twitter tonight…there’s no question about that,” said Klene.

Chris Keskitalo of Grand Rapids had never heard of the Crowler, but had just made his first purchase and was already sold on its merits.

“I bought this because I’ve never had it before.  It seems easier for coolers, and you can just recycle it on your trip to the beach,” Keskitalo said.

In addition to White Flame and Perrin, Crowlers are also becoming popular at several other Michigan breweries and bars, including Griffin Claw Brew Company (Birmingham) and BFD Clubhouse in Detroit.

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Even though the Crowler is generating buzz, growlers are still extremely popular, and not all beer drinkers will be ready for a switch. But for Bill White, the benefits of the increased shelf-life is a huge selling point.

“I’ve had them months and months later and they’ve still been great,” White said.

The combination of a longer life and a smaller volume has beer lovers like Klene favoring the Crowler.

“The moment you crack open a 64-ounce growler you have a time limit on when you can actually finish that and get the same quality product out of it,” Klene said.

Perrin customer Travis Andresen of Grand Rapids also sees a hidden benefit to the smaller 32-ounce can.

“It eliminates the sharing responsibilities because it’s just in one can, so I get it all to myself,” he joked.

Jeremy Rudolf from Oskar Blues does concede one possible drawback of the Crowler, and that’s the environmental concerns from using a new package for every purchase. But he believes those concerns can be answered as well.

“The one drawback of the whole thing is that it’s a one-way package. Now, the benefit of a one-way package is that it’s clean and it’s new every time. And it is infinitely recyclable. As long as you’re not a jerk and [you] throw it in the recycling bin, that will become a new can in less than two months.”

Beer lovers are always game to try the latest, greatest flavor innovation. Will that same attitude apply to the Crowler as well? Only time will tell. But these big, shiny cans may be making an appearance at your favorite brewery very soon.

To learn more about the Crowler, check out the Oskar Blues website.

GRAND RAPIDS — It’s the time of year for the second annual Brewers Grove event. I’ve had the chance to try four of the 24 tree beers at the Brewers Grove kickoff party, held Friday at Harmony Brewing Company.

All of these beers, in addition to the 20 others available, will be on tap at participating breweries through Sept. 12. All of the beers have some sort of interpretation around the idea of trees, with each brewery using its own creativeness to work this idea into a beer.

Harmony Brewing Sumac Attack, 5.5% ABV

A cloudy brew sits before me that looks just like apple cider. Hints of ruby red highlights appear among the dark amber liquid. It has a creamy mouthfeel, but with an excellent acidic tang throughout. This finishes bright and slightly tart.

I detect subtle notes of lemon zest, clove, and a vegetal character in the flavor. Banana notes that are in the background and latch onto that creamy mouthfeel, enhancing each other. The malt character is overpowered by the acidic tang, but does still come through as subtle bread notes.

In the nose this beer comes to me as pear and apple with just a little dab of bread forward malt.

White Flame Nut Job, 5.5% ABV

A pitch black beer with a tan head. Upon tasting, I detect a thin body and overall mouthfeel. It feels perhaps thinner than one would expect from such a robust looking brew. In the nose I smell burnt grain/toast and this carries into the flavor as well. I’m also detecting a slight nuttiness — perhaps walnuts — right before the finish.

Despite the foreboding appearance, this beer is extremely sessionable, though pretty one-dimensional. A more diversified grain bill might have given this beer a bit more complexity. Giving it a slight creamy character and playing more on the nuttiness of it would be to their advantage. Despite the fact that it is playing on one note, that feature would make it a pretty good pairing with french vanilla ice cream. It would add that roasted quality but wouldn’t overpower the somewhat delicate nature of the vanilla and would instead allow it to shine through.

Brewery Vivant Devastation: Bourbon Barrel Aged Belgian Style DIPA, 9.3% ABV

A very slight haziness in the beer and white head sit on top of the burnished gold to light amber colored liquid. The flavor includes exceptionally strong notes of bourbon with a bit of vanilla. The light spice character is reminiscent of clove. In the aroma I detect mango and very ripe peach, along with strong vanilla and a punch of Bourbon.

The brew drinks quite hot and has medium-high carbonation levels. The sweet and boozy character sticks to the roof of the mouth. In the finish I get that strike of hot booziness as well as a hint of dark cherry while the vanilla lingers.

Gravel Bottom Cedarino: Cedar Pale Ale, 7.1% ABV

The beer has dropped very bright and is a perfect light amber/honey brown color. There are subtle notes of sweet cedar, honey and bread on the nose and an almost rye grain-like spicy character that moves all the way into the finish.

I have confirmed with the brewer that there is in fact no rye in the grain bill, but the way the America hop varieties and the Spanish cedar interact it causes a spicy and biting character (similar to rye) for my tongue.

Both the hops and the cedar are working well together to create new flavors. I applaud the close attention the brewer paid to this interaction because it’s not easy to do. The mouthfeel is also smooth and silky all the way until the medium dryness in the finish. Besides the cedar, I detect resin, pine-forward American hops and granola in the flavor, but it’s more cedar-like and hop forward in the nose. Overall this is well balanced and is just begging to be paired with food.

HUDSONVILLE — Drinking Michigan craft beer AND supporting a great cause? That’s exactly what Bill White at White Flame Brewing Co. in Hudsonville is doing this summer during Hops for Hope 2012.

Today, White Flame is releasing “Hooterville Wheat” — a hoppy American-style wheat beer which sells for $5 a pint — with $1 from every beer sold going directly to fund breast cancer research at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids. The beer is only available in the taproom at 5234 36th Avenue in Hudsonville, through September 22.

“The cause is a good one that has touched many people’s lives including ours,” says White Flame Owner/Brewer Bill White. “Both my wife Jenn and I have lost our maternal grandmothers to complications related to breast cancer so this cause is very dear to our hearts.”

White Flame Brewing is open five days a week: Tuesdays-Thursdays (4-10 p.m.) and Friday-Saturday (4 p.m. to Midnight).

Oktoberfest is hitting the streets of Grand Rapids in a whole new way. And it’s going to be “hopping.”

Together with HopCat and Barfly Events, several Grand Rapids-area brewers are bringing some of the best tastes of October to a new event called Hoptoberfest. The Oct. 15 festival closes Ionia Street SW between Weston and Oakes streets for an outdoor beer and blues celebration 2-11 p.m.

“The success of our St. Patrick’s Day event, Irish on Ionia, inspired the concept for a fun new beer festival downtown,” said BarFly Ventures owner Mark Sellers. “It’s the perfect opportunity to team with other local breweries and highlight the variety of choices this area offers in craft beer.”

Breweries slated to have brews on tap are HopCat, Founders Brewing Company, Brewery Vivant, The Hideout Brewing Company, White Flame Brewing Company, Michigan Beer Cellar, Jaden James and Schmohz Brewing Company. In addition, HoptoberFest will feature a German beer garden, a HopCat food tent, local artists displaying artwork and a blues lineup featuring the legendary Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks as headliner. Other acts include Big James and the Chicago Playboys, Stacy Mitchhart and Rob Blaine’s Big Otis Blues.

BarFly Ventures operates downtown Grand Rapids bars HopCat, Stella’s Lounge, The Viceroy and McFadden’s, and is also part owner of The Pyramid Scheme, a live music venue. According to event organizer Shane Philipsen, a crowd of 3,000-5,000 is expected.

“This is the first year for Hopfest and it won’t be the last,” Philipsen said, adding that the event will piggyback off of the city’s ArtPrize event, which should “keep the ball rolling downtown” and give the feeling “Grand Rapids never sleeps.”

College football fans aren’t being left out either — there will be four 60-inch HDTVs showing the MSU vs. U of M game.

“Come out and watch the game and enjoy some good craft beer,” Philipsen said.

Tickets are available for $10 at TicketWeb.com and at participating local breweries and bars, including HopCat, Brewery Vivant, Stella’s, Viceroy, McFadden’s and Hideout. Tickets purchased on the day of the event are $15. By liking Hoptoberfest on Facebook, users are able to access an interactive application with plenty of extra information about the event.