The History of the Greenpoint Growler

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Many Greenpoint beer afficianados these days do not drink cans or bottles of beer. In places like Beer Street (413 Graham Avenue), One Stop Beer Shop (134 Kingsland Avenue) and Brouwerij Lane (78 Greenpoint Avenue), drinkers quaff growlers of beer, but the growler is nothing new in Greenpoint. It has a long local history.

There is no clear idea of where the term growler comes from. A growler has been defined as:

Growler: A pitcher or other vessel for beer, 1885, American English, of uncertain origin; apparently an agent noun from growl (v.)

In early days the expression “work the growler” meant go on a spree. An article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1880s describing the gang-infested Greenpoint area between Ash and Eagle Streets known as Dangertown (gotta love the name) reported that the local gangs robbed people to get money for the sole purpose of “working the growler.”

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, creating 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 an “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 quite vigilant in enforcing Sunday Blue: laws against drinking where 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—he threatened them and such was his local power that they stopped rather than face his wrath.

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 rumor 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.

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. I do not condone crime, but hopefully the judge who heard their case was a fan of growlers himself and showed leniency on the teens.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the history! My grandfather grew up on Freeman Street and often told us kids about being sent around the corner to pick up “a bucket of beer” from a bar where the Napa auto parts store is now located. I guess those stories stuck with me: I’m now slinging growlers at Eastern District, barely a block away.

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