It starts with a Christmas gift: “My brother gave me the book The Brewmaster’s Table, by the master brewer of the Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett Oliver. This book opened my eyes to many different beer styles, the history and background of the styles, along with suggestions for food pairings.” says Mark Craig, cofounder of TrailKeg. “Garrett wraps up the book with a simple suggestion: ‘If you want to learn more about beer, try homebrewing.’”
This started Craig’s journey to explore homebrewing and the equipment most commonly used. “A couple of friends and I were backcountry camping in Linville Gorge, North Carolina, and one of the guys had a 64-ounce vacuum-insulated bottle, the first one I'd seen. This was long before Yeti or Hydroflask was making them. I had casually mentioned that it would be cool to put a ball lock on the top of it and pressurize it.”
Mark Craig and Aaron Dunteman had worked together at a previous startup company; the two decided to team up and work on this carbonated growler concept.
“Honestly, we didn’t set out to start a company,” says Dunteman, who leads operations at TrailKeg. “Our goal was to simply exercise our entrepreneurial muscles and learn.” They decided to launch the first product on Kickstarter in 2015. “We had no idea what we were doing with the Kickstarter launch. And while we didn’t reach our funding goal on the first campaign, we did learn quickly and saw enough interest that we decided to keep going and produce the product.”
After the initial product launch, TrailKeg followed up with a Kickstarter campaign for the Gallon product that was fully funded and delivered. Check it out at TrailKeg.com.
Great Beer in Great Places
There is no denying that many beer styles are best on draft. Carbonated growlers—also called mini kegs or pressurized growlers—promise to bring that draft flavor to places beyond the taproom. They do this by maintaining the right temperature, carbonation level, and serving pressure, while protecting the beer from oxygen and light.
“We really wanted a product you could take anywhere, something you could throw any amount of abuse at, and it just works.” says Craig of their early torture tests and design challenges. “It’s the main reason we’ve stuck with milling our lids from billet aluminum. It’s expensive, but we’ve never had a lid fail. Seals maybe, but not the lids.” Dunteman handles much of the manufacturing process, and he emphasizes how important it is to understand how the design and quality of each component contributes to the overall quality and final experience.
Carbonated growlers are a simple idea, but they also pose a few unique engineering challenges that have to be conquered to get your beverage experience just right. One of those challenges is managing the balance between storage pressure and serving pressure. TrailKeg solved this challenge with their Perfect Pour dip tube—a specially designed dip tube that allows you to store at higher pressures to maintain carbonation, while slowing the flow of beer to prevent too much foam when pouring.
Another one of those engineering challenges pertains to the CO2 cartridges used with carbonated growlers. Over the life of the cartridge, the pressure will change from almost 600 PSI to 0 PSI. This drastic pressure change and an inherent regulator characteristic known as “droop” cause single-stage regulators to deliver a poor user experience for carbonated growlers. TrailKeg leverages a dual-stage regulator design, which delivers steady and consistent pressure throughout the life of the CO2 cartridge. (Learn much more on TrailKeg’s website.)
TrailKeg took an intentional approach to modularity in the design of their growler lineup. All their lids and bottles interchange, and the tap and regulator are both removable and interchangeable. When possible, standard connections such as ball locks from corny kegs are used, making TrailKeg a favorite among homebrewers.
The original TrailKeg design has evolved and matured over the years, and so have consumer interests. Craft beer and homebrew remain a staple for carbonated growlers, but nitro coffee, kombucha, craft cocktails, and mocktails have grown rapidly. Consumers are discovering that the same CO2 carbonation—or, nitrogen/nitrous oxide in the case of coffee—and vacuum insulation can also create great experiences for those other growing beverage segments. You can find the current evolution of the Gallon product.
“One of the best things about what we do is hearing stories from customers—the adventures our kegs have been on and the unique ways they are used,” Dunteman says.
Modularity and Adjacencies
Craig and Dunteman aren’t trying to compete with Yeti for the vacuum-insulated drink space, but they have developed a product line up that overlaps with some Yeti products. Their pressurized lid system is compatible with Yeti’s 64-ounce Rambler bottles, and the recently released TrailKeg Mod-Lid upgrades smaller Yeti Rambler bottles.
If there’s one thing that TrailKeg is known for, it is their customer service. The proof of that is in their positive reviews and high rate-of-return customers.
When asked what’s next from a product perspective, Dunteman and Craig’s thoughts reflect their roles in the company. “Aaron is excellent at operations; he ensures we keep making 1-percent improvements in our core competencies, and right now that is carbonated growlers,” Craig says. “I tend to spend more time focused on the future. I’d like to see us make the nitro experience better and more cost-effective, a better solution for carbonating water, and maybe wine preservation. I also wouldn’t mind doing a little camping too.”