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I read up a decent amount on conditioning in growlers before attempting it. I wanted to share my experience and see if others had had similar experiences.

The thinking, of course, is to minimize bottle-washing. From my research, the dangers were:

  • Large serving size
  • Poor carbonation
  • Bottle integrity, namely, the bottom falling out

I figured all of these could be mitigated through selection of the right beer. For instance, an English bitter has low gravity and low carbonation, and is conducive to a large serving size. One growler would fill three imperial pints handily, then be done.

I used high-quality growlers from a local beer specialty store, and bottled half a batch in five growlers, the remainder in 22 oz bottles. Here's the good:

  1. The carbonation was right, although a little less in the growlers than in the 22's. Actually, the growler beer is closer to an English bitter's level of carbonation than the 22's, which is a bit too lively.
  2. The taste is fine.
  3. The growlers held up well. I kept them in a tub so as to minimize the destruction possible with a 64 oz failure. I can't say that they'll be reliable batch after batch, but they worked just fine.

Here's the bad... Really just a quibble, but it might scuttle this effort for me:

  1. Growlers are fatter for the same height. That means that when you're pouring that third pint, you're going to get a cloudy, yeasty beer. The larger surface area on the bottom makes for a thinner, less cohesive yeast cake from conditioning, plus more "wash-off" as the final beer drains off the yeast cake. To add to that, your third pint is made up mostly of the bottom two inches of the bottle, where all the yeast is anyway. This works if you've got two friends over and you don't like one of them very much, but if you want to be hospitable, it means you need to bite the bullet and take the murky pint.

I could see brewing a different beer, like an intentionally cloudy wheat beer into growlers to mitigate this, but those beers classically require a higher level of carbonation, which would endanger the bottles, so I'm not willing to go there.

This worked out far better than people told me it would, but it's not what I'd call an unqualified success.

UPDATE

It's over a year later and I never really revisited carbonating in growlers since that first experiment. I now have moved on to kegging and never looked back. For people who keg their beer, there is still one very good use case for conditioning in growlers: overshooting the batch volume.

I have a mark on my primaries that will tell me exactly how much to fill in order to fit the results into a Corny keg (if racking right to keg). Sometimes I overshoot the mark. In these cases, when racking from 6 gallon primary to 5 gallon secondary or keg, I'll throw 4-5 Coopers Carbonation Drops into a sanitized growler, rack half a gallon into the growler, cap it, repeat if necessary, then proceed as usual. No beer is wasted.

But even then, a 2L soda bottle and a carbonator cap are far better than bottle conditioning.

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Rich - This is an excellently written background and question. Thank you! –  hookedonwinter Mar 3 '10 at 17:03
    
agreed. I'm really pleased with the quality of both questions and answers on the site. –  theraccoonbrew Dec 13 '10 at 22:01
    
Huh, thanks for the link--it didn't come up in my search for some reason. –  Derek Springer Dec 22 '11 at 19:21
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7 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I think the biggest problem with one person drinking from a growler of beer (even if you want to drink the three pints yourself) is the pour and repour. Your surface area issues and estimations in releation to a normal 12 or 22oz bottle are good. However, if you poured three 4oz samples from a 12 oz bottle you'd be stirring up the yeast just as often.

To dodge the issue, (and maybe un-scuttle the cons of the technique) I'd recommend gently pouring the entire growler into a pitcher. This should be fine seeing as you plan to drink the whole growler anyway once open with a session beer like English Bitter.

Its similar in theory to decanting wine. Get all the beer off the sediment in one shot. That should eliminate your only negative you have listed.

Regarding carbonation: Brewpubs routinely fill a beer with 'normal' carbed levels of IPA or pilsner and sell them. I think that would be fine for most applications at home too. The key to reducing the threat of growler bombs, would be to ensure your fermentation is done, and being meticulous about the amount of priming sugar being used. Combining those two factors, you should be able to condition in a growler just fine without the fear of explosion. There are a handful of breweries that bottle beer in growlers for production so the integrity of the growler is fine for most carbonation applications. Lastly, growlers (and 12oz commercial beer bottles) are typically thinner walled than the bottles we get for bottling homebrew. They are more prone to failure after a few applications. So to reduce the growler bomb concern even more, I'd only use the growler a few times before retiring it to a life of yeast starters. (not a bad retirement for a growler).

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It's hard to say since growlers can be made very strongly and more thinly for just carrying final product from a keg to several thirsty mouths. Most growlers with straight sides are not designed to hold the pressure of natural carbonation - especially if they have suffered some wear and shocks over time. I've had one explode on me with just beer in it, and others have had similar issues.

failed growler

However, some 2 liter growlers are quite sturdy.

stone brewery growler

If you are prepared to contain a filled growler with a pan or bucket, or OK with clean up if the growler fails, you can find glass that is sturdy enough for bottle conditioning.

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I would recommend against carbonating in growler. The thin walls are not designed for high pressure. If your beer didn't finish completely, you have an infection, or you accidentally use too much priming sugar that thing is going to explode. And it may wait to explode until you pick it up, shooting glass in your arm, face, and dropping glass on your foot.

I once had a bottle bomb that shot glass into my leg from a few feet away, nothing to mess with.

I highly recommend kegging and then using the growler to transport your beer. No bottle washing neccessary and a lot safer! Plus, no sediment in your growler. If you dont have a kegerator, use priming sugar and use CO2 to just push the beer into your growlers or bottles.

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If they really can't handle the pressure then how is it possible that several breweries actually package carbonated product in growlers? Thats the whole point of my answer. I used to think the same thing, but logically I can't justify it anymore. –  brewchez Mar 3 '10 at 19:46
    
When a brewery packages in a growler, the beer has finished fermention, it may have been filtered and then it's force carbonated to a specifical level which is controlled by the brewer. You can do this by force carbonating in a Keg then filling a groller from your tap. The danger comes from unexpected fermention. Maybe the yeast didn't finish attenuating, or slightly too much sugar was used, or you used DME, honey instead of corn sugar, or the beer got slightly infected. Or your priming sugar wasn't mixed well enough. homebrewtalk.com/f35/growler-goes-boom-63121 –  Tim Weber Mar 8 '10 at 19:52
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I use growlers with Grolsch-style caps all the time and condition in them. I tend to shoot for a lighter carbonation usually, so I've never had any blow on me. Besides, those kinds of caps will leak before they blow. Your carb level will be different than with 22s on the same batch, but it has never bothered me-- I've always found the growlers to take longer but to eventually have a tad more carbonation in the end.

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Have you thought about using Magnum (1.5L) Champagne bottles? They're built for the pressure and they have a punt in the bottom which may help with the sediments as well.

Drawback: Special capping equipment needed.

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Other drawback, acquiring Magnum bottles. –  PMV Dec 15 '10 at 20:51
    
Not a problem for me... –  Chris Cudmore Dec 15 '10 at 21:33
    
Lucky guy! It's a good idea. And I've found using plastic champagne corks to be actually the fastest way of bottling other than swing-tops. You just shove 'em in and put on a wire hood. –  Rich Armstrong Jan 8 '11 at 15:28
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I've done it a few times, but never a whole batch- maybe one if I have a bit more than a keg for example. Of course there is the pressure issue others have mentioned, although I've never had that problem. The only problem I've had is the cap not forming a perfect seal, not allowing it to build up enough carbonation to pressurize it.

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Assuming that you are confident that the growler can handle the pressure (as a growler i would suspect it is designed to hold pressure), there is noreason you couldn't naturally carbonare in the growler.

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