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When passions collide: my love affair with low-carbon beer

growler.jpgI love low-carbon beer. I’m not talking about a beer that’s light in calories. Nor am I looking for a beer with less fizz, although I do enjoy a nice hand-pulled ale. I’m certainly not looking for anything alcohol-free.

Low-carbon beer is a product with a smaller carbon footprint than its mass-produced brethren, which simply means that less non-renewable energy was used to manufacture and transport the product to customers. Of course, above all else a beer has to be delicious. It so happens that my gastronomic and environmental interests intersect quite nicely, at least in this instance.

I am blessed to live within biking distance of Bierkraft, a Brooklyn institution serving up over 900 kinds of specialty beer. Now that I’ve discovered Bierkraft’s growlers, though, I’m not interested in any of those 900 beers.

Instead I’m interested in the nine kegs they keep chilled in the back. Every time they kick a keg, they swap it out for a new kind of beer. As a rule, the beers are local specialty brews not available in bottles.

Bierkraft is a shop, not a bar, so aside from the odd sip they’ll give you when you’re tasting, you have to take your beer home to drink it. This is where the growler comes in.

A growler is a 64-ounce brown glass jug that you purchase once and then refill every time you come back to the store. The origin of the term “growler” is mysterious, but the custom of carrying home fresh beer pulled from a keg has a long and storied tradition:

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, fresh beer was carried from the local pub to one’s home by means of a small-galvanized pail. Rumor has it that when the beer sloshed around the pail, it created a rumbling sound as the CO2 escaped through the lid, thus the term “growler” was coined.

Before World War II, city kids used to bring covered buckets of draft beer from a local bar or brewery to workers at lunchtime or to their parents at dinnertime, a practice called “rushing the growler.”

In the 50s and 60s, waxed cardboard containers with lids were used to take home beer — it’s said that they were round and resembled take-out Chinese soup containers. And in many US states, it used to be (and still is) illegal for “liquor stores” to be open on Sunday. So if you wanted beer on Sunday you went to a bar and bought some of these “containers” of draft beer. However by the late 60s many bars had switched to plastic and eventually they were allowed to sell packaged beer after hours. Soon after, many states allowed Sunday sales at liquor stores and the concept of the growler soon died.

The concept has now been revived by brewpubs and other craft brewers. Although concern for the environment may not be the motivating factor, the benefits of this arrangement are clear. Many of these beers travel at most a few dozen miles to get from brewery to store. Once there, the beers are pumped straight into reusable glass containers, rather than swaddled in throwaway packaging.

As an added bonus, craft breweries are usually local affairs that tend to support the types of social values that make me all warm inside. For example, the Brooklyn Brewery is powered with 100% wind energy, pays farmers to recycle its spent grain as cattle feed, and delivers its kegs in biodiesel-fueled trucks. Six Point Craft Ales (also here in Brooklyn) lists community development and environmental sustainability as part of its mission.

More importantly, both breweries make damned fine beers. Environmentalists have long stressed the notion of eating locally. Now you can drink locally too.

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