Homegrown Growlers

By Beacon Staff

If there is a link between art and beer drinking, Tim Carlburg has apparently found it. A potter by training and a microbrew enthusiast by practice, Carlburg has created a product line of useful tools that get right to the heart of his artistic vision and Montana’s love of beer: handcrafted ceramic growlers.

From his Kalispell pottery studio, Carlburg makes handmade – and often custom-designed – growlers, which are half-gallon jugs that hold beer. Growlers are found at breweries across the nation, and in Montana they are symbols identifying a beer drinker’s favorite brewery.

Carlburg said he knows of only one other potter making growlers in the country. That company is based out of Maryland and makes the growlers specifically for one brewery, he said. Carlburg makes other pottery, but growlers have become the backbone of his sales.

“I’d say the growlers are about 90 percent of my business now,” he said.

While traditional growlers say something about the beer drinkers’ preferred venues, Carlburg’s custom growlers say something about the beer drinkers themselves: favorite taglines, designs and color schemes. One customer said she wanted her father’s face on the growler, so Carlburg replicated the face as best he could, with the bushy eyebrows and all.

Carlburg also makes growlers for breweries such as Flathead Lake Brewing Company, Madison River Brewing Company and Blackfoot River Brewing Company, with the breweries’ logos imprinted on the growlers. He also made 30 growlers for a brewery in Oregon, and more could be on the way.

Both locals and tourists like to buy growlers at Montana breweries, and Carlburg said his growlers are particularly appealing to tourists seeking Montana-made products.

“They’ll visit a microbrewery while they’re traveling and they’ll want to take a piece of it with them,” he said.

Each growler is hand-thrown by Carlburg, designed to specifications and glazed. They sell for $50 apiece on his website. Growlers that require more painting and detail work may cost more, he said. To date, he figures he’s sold between 250 and 400. He’s getting five to six custom order requests per week.

Carlburg opened up Carlburg Pottery on North Meridian Street 18 months ago, after working at Whitefish Pottery. While at Whitefish Pottery, he was in charge of glazing and was invited to show his work at the National Folk Festival in Butte in 2008. He was invited again last year and this year, the last time the event is held in Butte before moving to Nashville in 2011.

Carlburg Pottery sells a variety of handmade kitchenware, such as bowls, teapots, coffee mugs, folk art and pitchers. Carlburg places high priority on functionality while maintaining the pottery’s artistic integrity. Basically, he wants customers to use his products, not set them on a shelf. They are safe for microwaves, dishwashers and ovens.

Likewise, the growlers are sturdy and practical for their purposes. For example, with their stoneware clay makeup, they can keep beer cold for four hours or more in the sun.

“Clay is a good insulator, but usually the beer doesn’t last that long,” Carlburg said.

While still at Whitefish Pottery, Carlburg designed his first prototypes for the growler. The owner of Flathead Lake Brewing Company liked them, even if they were a bit rough and in need of tweaking.

Carlburg said it took him awhile to get where he could make them fairly consistent in size and shape, as each is handmade individually. Also, the cork tops he used at the beginning didn’t hold the carbonation very well. But the swing tops he uses now are effective, holding carbonation for up to a week and a half, he said.

“Why anybody would want to leave good microbrew in there for that long is beyond me, though,” he said.

Carlburg has a bachelor’s degree in art education and also served in the U.S. Army. He describes himself as a “full-time father, part-time potter.” He spends much of his time caring for his 18-month-old daughter while his wife works at the hospital. But every chance he gets, he’s in the studio. The orders just keep rolling in.

“Right now word of mouth is keeping me busier than I can handle,” he said, “which is a good position to be in.”

For more information, go to www.carlburgpottery.com.

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