Can you handle it? Forget its cheap-beer reputation—the aluminum can is a boon to craft brewing
Once upon a time you could judge a beer based on its looks alone. Cheap, mass-market suds were sold in aluminum cylinders that, when empty, could be flattened beneath your bare feet.
Craft beer, on the other hand, was capped inside comparatively elegant 12- or 22-ounce bottles or champagne carafes sealed with a cork and cage.
But over the last decade the day-and-night distinction between beers based on their appearance has gotten blurrier than a bad phone-camera picture. Formerly the realm of Bud, Coors, and their watery ilk, the maligned metal container now welcomes a more upscale resident: craft beer. Attracted by cans’ environmental benefits, go-anywhere portability, and ability to actually keep suds fresher (yes, it’s true), canned beer has caught on at more than a hundred specialty breweries nationwide, from big boys such as Brooklyn Brewing, New Belgium, and Sierra Nevada on down to newcomers, including Maine’s Baxter Brewing, Upslope in Colorado, and DC Brau, in our country’s capital.
Why have craft breweries taken so long to cotton to cans? Cost. Traditionally, canning has been a high-volume process, with filling machines cranking out tens of thousands of cases of beer daily. The equipment can easily cost more than a million bucks. Since some itsy-bitsy craft brewers distribute fewer than ten thousand cases a year, the economics never added up. So brewers made do with bottles, a package not lacking flaws.
Bottling is messy business, with wasted beer being commonplace. Then there’s the issue of the bottles themselves. They’re heavy, which increases shipping costs, as well as fragile and prone to breakage. The caps don’t always seal properly, letting carbonation and beer leak out. And beer is photosensitive. Whether the glass is brown, green, or clear, every bottle lets in UV light, which can cause beer to smell skunky. That’s because of the presence of hops, which when boiled release isohumulones. When light strikes these chemicals, they create compounds very similar to those found in skunks’ spray.
Canned beer cures these ailments. And that tinny taste is long gone, due to waterbased polymer linings that prevent beer from contacting the aluminum. Yes, there’s a bit of BPA in a can’s epoxy-resin lining, but you’d need to drink more than 450 cans of beer in a day to exceed the recommended limit, according to the EPA.
But the real turning point for America’s canned-beer resurgence came from a Canadian firm. In 1999 Calgary-based Cask Brewing Systems developed a two-container, handcanning system scaled for smaller breweries. A few years later Cask sent a fax touting its invention to Dale Katechis, owner of Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colorado, which crafts uncompromising beers such as the assertively hopped Dale’s Pale Ale and Old Chub, a tartinged Scotch ale that packs a punch. “We laughed hysterically for six months,” Katechis recalls of receiving the fax. “Then one day I stopped laughing.”
Beyond the obvious benefits, Katechis realized that cans were ideal for Oskar’s hiker/fisherman fan base. It was far easier to pack beer in—and out—minus the added weight of glass. In November 2002 their hand-canning began. The results were delicious and, oddly, therapeutic. Letters poured into Oskar about men drinking canned beer without feeling any shame. To meet demand the company switched to Cask’s automated canning machine. The “canned-beer apocalypse,” as Katechis likes to call it, had befallen craft brewing. “We get a great deal of joy out of handing a nonbeliever a can of our beer and watching their head spin around,” Katechis says.
Nonetheless, getting that beer into consumers’ hands can be a tough hurdle to overcome. We live in an image-based society where looks matter. Consumers prefer bottled beer, equating glass with class. It’s an irrational prejudice, sure, but you can understand why some consumers would be loathe to embrace the kind of beer equated with forehead-crushing frat parties. Compared to a squat can of Coors, a dark sleek bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale looks as elegant as a luxury sedan. It may take time for the idea of craft beer in a sensible aluminum container to overcome canned-beer stereotypes.
“In the early days there might have been sideways glances from people who considered themselves beer geeks, but we’ve found the craft-beer drinker is more than willing to embrace the cans,” says Bryan Simpson, the media relations director for New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. Since
the brewery’s 1991 inception, it has built a business model on innovative ales and environmental stewardship. So it was a nobrainer when New Belgium decided to can some of its flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale in the summer of 2008. The familiar product in an unfamiliar package “immediately sold ahead of forecast,” Simpson says.
In fact, canned Fat Tire was such a hit that New Belgium expanded its canning efforts to include its summery Sunshine Wheat and Ranger IPA. Additionally, the brewery will soon release brews in 16-ounce cans, while Oskar Blues will offer the Deviant Dale’s IPA in the same supersized format. It’s the next big step in craft breweries’ reclaiming aluminum. While the 16-ounce format has long been the preferred vessel for malt liquor and value-priced beer, craft breweries such as Minnesota’s Surly, Chicago’s Half Acre, and Oregon’s Fort George are beginning to see the benefits of the larger package. Taller cans offer more space for companies to create bold graphics. More importantly, 16 ounces is the same size as a standard draft-beer serving in a bar. Consider it a portable, palm-perfect pint. Bye-bye, bottle opener.
Written by Joshua M. Bernstein. This article is adapted from Josh Bernstein’s hardcover,
Brewed Awakening: Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World’s Brewing Revolution, published by Sterling Epicure (November 2011).