When I first heard of the term "crowler" — the can version of the growler — I was more confused than intrigued. Why would any non-Australian person need a can of beer that size? I'd always assumed that the folks Down Under saved those Foster's empties to fling at kangaroos.
So I went to the big neon sputnik that is Joe's Wines and Liquor on Poplar and asked assistant manager, Kaare Bivin-Pederson, to explain. Which he kindly did. "Since a can is neither gas or light permeable, they are much better for storing beer for longer periods."
"Interesting," said I. What I was thinking was not nearly so polite, namely, "God's Holy Trousers! We've got to lay up vintage beer now? Can't we just drink the stuff?"
As is often the case, I'd missed the point entirely. Cellaring is about letting flavors mature over time. The utility of the can is that the taste and fizz don't change at all. In a glass growler — even one properly sealed and stuck in the back of your fridge — beer's flavor will morph over time. In particular, those high-gravity beers (those topping 10 percent ABV) and cask-aged beers will continue to "evolve" in glass, and not always in a good way. Kaare explained all this as he pointed to the gleaming wall of taps and video displays that are only slightly less spectacular than the sputnik (but much more practical), adding: "Take this Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, for example — after a few weeks in a glass growler, it's going to lose its flavor." So hopheads take note.
Crowlers are great for taking your favorite Memphis beers on the road — it's still the only way to get Memphis Made in a can — or for saving some of a limited production beer to enjoy six months later, exactly the way it came out of the tap. "Oh, we've tested it," says Kaare. "It's still got the fizz."
Joe's will fill and seal the can in the store and mark the date. The cans themselves come from Oskar Blues, the brewery that in 2002 cracked the mystery of turning a can into a hand-held keg. They are responsible for Dale's Pale Ale, Pinner Blunt, and the wonderfully named Old Chub Scotch Ale — which pairs well with those plaid holiday pants no one wants you to wear. The company's secondary mission, evidently, is to can the entire planet, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that they really did revolutionize the process, so that the beer doesn't have that metallic twang that we of a certain age associate with Milwaukee's Best.
We were having a pleasant, informative chat until Kaare, half amused, pointed over my shoulder and said, "We have canned wine, too ... and it tastes exactly like it does out of the bottle."
First of all, that's a terrible thing to say to anyone, and secondly, he didn't actually say it was good. What he said was, "You need to watch how you drink those. If you attack it like a beer, you'll be under the table." That's sound advice. I stood there looking at a tin of pinot noir thinking, "Wow, it really does look like a beer."
In full disclosure, I didn't try one. Although I can see the advantage, in that, like the crowler, canned wine gets a pass into places that don't allow glass containers.
The truth is, and I'm not proud of it, I've imbibed a couple of bottles of Night Train in my day, reviewed by John Belushi in The Blues Brothers as "a mean wine." And once you go down a rabbit hole like that, you pretty much lose the moral high ground on canned vino. At any rate, an enormous crowler of beer is probably okay for a first date, but a can of Bordeaux is ill-advised.