One of the great drinking pleasures in Greenpoint is taking a growler of beer out of Brouwerij Lane on Greenpoint Avenue. Brouwerij Lane makes small amounts of great locally brewed bee and for a five dollar deposit you can bring a growler home with you. Nowadays, a growler is simply a glass jug that carries a half-gallon of beer, but the term has a long local history. Before we delve into that lets define the term.
Growler has been defined as ” A pitcher or other vessel for beer, 1885, American English, of uncertain origin; apparently an agent noun from growl (v.). It owes its popularity to laws prohibiting sale of liquor on Sundays and thus the tippler’s need to stock up. Also in early use in the expression work the growler “go on a spree.”
brouwerij Lane, owned by my friend, beer maven Ed Raven, is actually bringing back a much older Greenpoint beer tradition. Today, no one really gets very worked up about locals and their growlers, but in years past the growler was the cause of many scandals.
Before we explore the lurid growler scandals let us trace the etymology and the history of the growler. There is a lot of dispute about how the term growler originated. Mass bottling of beer changed Brooklyn beer drinking culture. In the days before bottles people talked about “Rushing the growler.” In the late 1800s, fresh beer was carried from the local pub to home in a small, galvanized pail. Some claim The term “growler” came about when the beer sloshed around the pail, it created a rumbling sound as the CO2 escaped through the lid. Others say that the term growler came from the beer workmen were given before lunch to stop their stomachs from growling. In the ” Old Timers” section of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, published in 1940 an old timer recalled that his first job was carrying growlers of beer to local factory workers. Kids were often sent to get growlers for their folks.
Other old-timers recalled that the Greenpoint Police were so vigilant in enforcing Sunday Blue-laws against drinking that they inspected people’s packages to check for growler smugglers. Fr. O’Hare, the legendary rector of St. Anthony’s, went to bars that gave growlers to local kids and threatened them. O’Hare had so much power in the area that the bars closed on Sundays and did not give kids growlers.
O’Hare, however, was not the only local clergyman whose ministry would be affected by growlers. In 1893 the Reverend Robert Cochrane of the Church of the Ascension was mired in a growler scandal that made it into the Brooklyn papers. Rev. Cochrane was a good looking young widower with black hair, brown eyes and an intelligent face according to the Brooklyn Eagle. As a minister he was of irreproachable character and solidly orthodox in his teachings. However, he did believe that a minister had the same right to drink a beer or smoke a cigar as any other man. Cochrane appeared one day at a tobacco shop on Manhattan Avenue where he bought and smoked a cigar, but this did not cause as much outrage as the allegation that the good reverend was “carrying the growler in broad daylight on Manhattan Avenue within a block of his own church” A vestry woman named Felter from his church claimed to have seen the minister with the growler and the gossip spread like wildfire until the rumour made its way into the Eagle. An unidentified source in the article said that some in his parish labeled the minister as a “Carouser’ and that his poor behavior was destroying the church” In an Eagle interview Cochrane claimed that he had “never rushed the growler, nor drank in any public place in this parish. ” He did, however, in anger observe that Greenpoint was, ” The worst place for malicious gossip” he had ever resided in.
By the 1880’s an area of Greenpoint became notorious for crime. It was called Danger town and the Eagle reported that the area was infested with street gangs and toughs whose only thought was how to get money to obtain growlers. These gangs with colorful names such as “The Undertakers,” The Police Killers” and my favorite, “The Dangertown Slobs.” The Eagle reported that on the fifth of May 1887 two Manhattan Avenue teens were arrested for trying to shake down a local merchant for money to buy more growlers. The members of the gang despised work, but the article claimed, “To work for the growler is one of the few things they live for.” As a beer fan I have a soft spot in my heart for the Dangertown growler fans. I am sure if they were around today they would be regulars at Brouwerij Lane, but they do not sound like they were ironic enough to be hipsters.