Clay Culture: Ceramic Growlers

1 Smoothneck growlette with leash, 8.5 in. (22 cm) in height, slip-cast stoneware, satin gray glaze, leather strap by Walnut Studiolo.

As ceramic artists, we put extra value on handmade objects and their makers. And for most of us, this is true in all aspects of our lives. We like to support local economies, use local resources, and eat locally grown food. And many of us even like to drink locally made beer. The Portland Growler Company, in Portland, Oregon, is supplying handmade ceramic growlers for beer enthusiasts. Don’t live in Portland? Don’t worry; these bottles can be shipped to your doorstep and taken to your local brewery no matter where you live.

Benefits of Ceramic Growlers

When starting out, one of the company’s challenges was to get beer drinkers to switch from glass to ceramic growlers. There are several benefits of using a ceramic growler over a glass growler. For one, ceramic is a natural insulator, and the Portland Growler Company’s bottles are cast thick to provide even better insulation. The company and many of their clients claim that once removed from the refrigerator their beer stays cold for a few hours. Another benefit to having a ceramic growler is that clay blocks out light, therefore preventing your beer from becoming skunked. Their growlers have a wide mouth and therefore are easier to clean than typical glass growlers. A porcelain flip-top lid and rubber gasket is used to seal their growler’s wide mouths, which keeps in carbonation longer than a screw top lid.

2–4 Dan Shepard trims and bevels the mouth of a growler and attaches a handle.

Getting Started

The history behind the Portland Growler Company starts with Brett Binford and Chris Lyon who are the founders of Mudshark Studios (the company that makes the growlers) and partial owners of the Portland Growler Company. Mudshark Studios offers mold-making and modeling services, along with the production and manufacturing of ceramic objects. Although Mudshark Studios is successful, Binford and Lyon wanted to engage their employees to design and sell a product of their own. In the summer of 2010, after brainstorming a number of different ideas, Binford, Lyon, Paul Christensen, Jonathan Langston, Seth Nickerson, Craig Ritchie, and Nick Vietor, decided the growler was the most satisfying design idea to pursue, especially since Portland is known for its microbreweries. With the decision made, they formed the Portland Growler Company.

Sprocket growler, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, slip-cast stoneware, gloss blue glaze.

Design

The Portland Growler Company’s marketing manager, Nicole Curcio explained how the exact form for the growlers came about, “Once they decided to produce growlers, each founding member brought ideas to the table and they critiqued the pros and cons of each design. . . . They already saw the challenge of asking the beer drinkers to make the switch from familiar glass growlers to clay growlers, so they wanted to work within a design that was functional but historically significant and recognizable. The familiar shape that inspired the growlers you see us making today was an old whiskey jug. . . . The next steps in development involved wheel throwing and lathe turning prototypes. These were used to test the effects of subtle line alterations. Through months of deliberation and compromise, the founders finally arrived on a design they could all proudly stand behind.”

Maker’s Mark

The growlers are cast in plaster molds. After coming out of the mold, each growler’s neck is trimmed on the potter’s wheel to round and bevel the edge of the lip to get the greatest amount of surface area touching the gasket, which creates a tighter seal.

The individuals who actually make the bottles each have a stamp with their initials and whoever does the finishing touches (trimming the neck, attaching the handle, and cleaning up the bottom before applying the logo) also stamps their initials into the bottom of the vessel, each bottle has these two maker’s marks.

6 Cooper Jeppesen using the potters wheel to trim the growlers neck.

7 Cooper Jeppesens makers mark on the bottom of a growler.

Sales and Marketing

Although the growler can be used to hold any beverage, the company’s main target audience is beer enthusiasts. These enthusiasts, who range from individuals to breweries, purchase several thousand growlers every year. Since it started in 2010, year after year the Portland Growler Company has more than doubled the previous year’s sales.

When asked about their marketing strategy, Curcio states, “Our marketing strategy is very much about community. We want to engage with people who make things, and the people who appreciate the things we’re making.” This focus is evident on the blog section of the Portland Growler Company’s website; each maker has a profile that features an image of that person working and a series of fun questions and answers to read. “There’s been a resurgence in small businesses and artists producing handcrafted goods all over the country, but we are lucky to be part of a really concentrated group of makers here in Portland. . . . the obvious niche target is craft beer enthusiasts, but we believe our total audience is much broader. We see opportunity in the decor and entertaining markets, as well. A growler full of craft beer is a much nicer hostess gift than a six pack. It’s reusable (no bottle waste), it’s classy, and it can be filled with any beverage: coffee, tea, wine, cocktails, or water.”

For more information on the Portland Growler Company and to learn more about the people who make the growlers, visit
http://portlandgrowlercompany.com.

To learn more about Mudshark Studios, check out http://mudsharkstudios.com.

Photos courtesy of Portland Growler Company.

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