If every golden era has its accessories, Tim Carlburg has the perfect tool for Montana's microbrew age: custom ceramic growlers. The Kalispell-based ceramicist has created commercial beer growlers out of clay for Flathead Lake Brewing Company, Madison River Brewing Company, Blackfoot River Brewing Company and Glacier Brewing Company. He also makes custom growlers for individuals who want to have a drinking vessel that fits their personality.
"One woman said that she and her girlfriends like to go out and get rowdy at the bars," says Carlburg. "And whenever they talk about going out they talk about the 'horns coming out.' So I made her a devil horned growler."
No request has proven too difficult for Carlburg. He's designed growlers inscribed with military insignia for army retirement ceremonies. He's made matching growlers for wedding party presents, and created others that sport family crests. And, recently, he sent a commissioned growler decorated with sailboats and islands to Guam for the territory's homebrew club.
Carlburg got the idea for custom growlers while sipping a pint of beer at Flathead Lake Brewing Company in Woods Bay just over a year ago. He played around with the thought for a while, trying out different growler sizes and thicknesses, figuring out how to make it work.
"They looked more like the original moonshine jugs," Carlburg says. "But the cork tops I was using just didn't hold the carbonation very well."
Fortunately, the owner of the Flathead Lake Brewing Company gave him some swing tops—think of Grolsch brand beer bottles—from the brewery's brown glass growlers to experiment with. The swing tops kept the carbonation as long as any screw cap, Carlsburg says, plus they gave the growlers a more old-world look than the ordinary glass growler. The glaze Carlburg used kept the growler design from rubbing off over time, and the thickness of the clay material provided enough insulation to keep the beer cold up to four hours, even in direct sunlight.
"I took the fruits of my labor back to the Flathead Lake Brewing Company and [the owner] really liked the idea," Carlburg says. "So it all grew from there."
Carlburg got into ceramics when he took a class for his K-12 art education degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. After graduation, he was stationed in Fort Knox, Ky., as active duty military, and he chose to take continuing education classes in ceramics at Bellarmine University in Louisville to keep his teaching license from lapsing. But it wasn't until three years later, when he was out of the military and had moved to the Flathead, that he threw himself into the craft. At Flathead Valley Community College he worked in the studio part time and then got a job at Whitefish Pottery for a year and a half before setting up his own business.
The process for making ceramic growlers is intensive. Carlburg gets stoneware clay from the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena and molds it into the basic jug form. It dries for a couple of hours before he adds grommets for the swing top and a handle. He air dries the growler for a week before firing it in the kiln for 12 hours at 1,800 degrees. It dries for another day, after which point he creates the logo or hand-painted design and then fires it again for 12 hours at 2,300 degrees. After a final cooling and the attachment of a swing top, it's done. He finishes about 10 growlers per day, but the entire process takes between two and four weeks—sometimes more when demand is high.
Carlburg plans on taking some of his newest growlers to Butte in July for what marks his third appearance as one of 25 juried artists at the National Folk Festival. Considering the fact that growlers now make up 90 percent of his sales (at $50 each or more, depending on the customization), he's eager to push that side of his pottery business.
"People here do love their beer," Carlburg says. "We have an amazing brewing community. Talking to some of the head brewers, what we have going on in western Montana and even out in Billings is on par with what they're doing over in Portland and Seattle. It's really coming of age here."
The Beer Age, indeed. Maybe, after the apocalypse, when future archaeologists dig through the remains of Montana's landscape, they'll discover Carlburg's ceramic growlers and realize how much we truly loved our locally brewed beer.
"That's the neat thing about pottery," says Carlburg. "If it's taken care of properly, it will outlast all of us."
For more information on Tim Carlburg's ceramic growlers visit carlburgpottery.com.