Debunking the Misperceptions of Craft Beer in Cans
Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was about to go national. It had found a distribution and marketing partner, and was ready to bust out of Wisconsin. Jeff Fulbright, the founder and president of the brewing company behind Chief Oshkosh, Mid-Coast Brewing, excitedly placed the beer in a spectrum that showed both his ambition and confidence.
“The West Coast has Anchor Steam beer, and the East Coast has Samuel Adams beer,” Fulbright said in a statement. “Through this union, we have created a company that has the strength to distinguish our line of beers as a dominant Midwestern representative of the rapidly growing microbeer segment.”
The idea for Fulbright’s company was born of the larger craft beer movement in the late 1980s and 1990s, right before it entered its period of greatest growth. Information still traveled primarily over the telephone or by word of mouth; and it was at a Great American Beer Festival in Denver in the late 1980s that Fulbright ran into Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Co., which itself had gone national a few years before.
Fulbright, then in his mid-30s, with bushy brown hair and a moustache to match, told Koch of his idea to revive the Chief Oshkosh brand in his native Wisconsin. He had checked on the trademark: It was available. The beer had been brewed until 1971 by the Oshkosh Brewing Co., one of many regionals that collapsed amid the post-World War II consolidation in the brewing industry.
Oshkosh Brewing itself had been formed by the 1894 consolidation of three Oshkosh-based breweries nervous about competition from Schlitz and Pabst in nearby Milwaukee, according to Lee Reiherzer of the Oshkosh Beer blog, who first tracked down Fulbright’s story.
Koch suggested that Fulbright brew Chief Oshkosh under contract at an existing brewery, which was what Koch himself was doing for his fast-selling Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Fulbright took Koch’s suggestion back to the Midwest, where he studied brewing at the Siebel Institute in Chicago and incorporated the Mid-Coast Brewing Co. in May 1991.
Its signature beer would be a red lager that Fulbright devised at Siebel and brewed at the Stevens Point Brewery, a regional 70 miles northwest of Oshkosh.
Chief Oshkosh Red Lager hit the local Milwaukee market in 1991, retailing for $3.99 a six-pack. Fulbright lined up coverage on three TV stations in Wisconsin as well as in the consumer and trade media. He reached out to legendary critic Michael Jackson personally as well as to this magazine—Jackson praised the beer for an “unapologetic, robust sweetness” and All About Beer said it was “just delightful.” Distributors signed on, and by the end of 1992, Chief Oshkosh would spread statewide, with those plans to go national following quickly after.
The craft beer was already a hit, when, on June 17, 1991, a Monday, Fulbright hosted a formal unveiling for about 45 people at the Oshkosh Hilton. He and volunteers poured the red lager from cans.
That’s right: cans.
You’re forgiven. The history of canning in American craft beer is drenched in myths. For instance, ask most industry experts, including the brewers themselves, and they would date the advent of craft-beer canning to late 2002, when Dale Katechis decided to can all his Oskar Blues brands, particularly his signature Dale’s Pale Ale. Oskar Blues, out of tiny Lyons, CO, is considered to be the first American craft brewery to can its own beers.
But it wasn’t the first American craft beer sold in a can. (And it wasn’t the first in North America, for that matter, to can its own beers, with that honor belonging to Yukon Gold in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 2001.) Chief Oshkosh Red Lager predates Dale’s Pale Ale by 11 years, as do at least four other domestic offerings: Pete’s Summer Brew from Pete’s Brewing, Wisconsin Amber from Capital Brewery, Brewski Brewing’s Brewski Beer and Iron Range Amber Ale from James Page Brewing—all hit shelves, either regionally or nationally, before 1999, though each was canned on contract by larger companies.
For Fulbright, the decision to can in 1991 was purely economic, and he was not aware that he was unique in craft beer. “I just saw it was the only means to an end because, well, I won’t say how little money we started with,” Fulbright told All About Beer in April. He estimates that the total was “way under $100,000.”
His decision to can might have saved him an estimated penny per ounce, according to a source familiar with beer packaging. Canning manufacturers, then and now, typically demand minimum orders of several thousand cans. Fulbright was soon producing 2,000 barrels annually—or roughly 660,000 12-ounce cans. He poured the savings from canning into marketing as well as into ingredients that were rare, even for craft beer, including Belgian Caramunich malt, which gave Chief Oshkosh its reddish hue.
Chief Oshkosh would not survive the decade, doomed by a distribution battle with Miller, which by 1993 was aggressively pushing a red lager through Leinenkugel, the Wisconsin regional it acquired five years before. Fulbright’s distribution would grow to 13 states, but it wasn’t enough: In 1994, Mid-Coast Brewing and the last cans of Chief Oshkosh disappeared from shelves. Most of the other craft beer brands in cans would also fold before or soon after the turn of the century under similar pressure brought on in large part by the national breweries (only Capital Brewery remains).
That left Oskar Blues, starting in 2002, to loose the ongoing trend of craft brewers, small and large, canning their beers. The number of craft breweries canning at least some of their beers has increased at least 28,400 percent in the last decade. The biggest addition to this canning roster came in February, when Boston Beer Co. announced it would begin canning its iconic Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
The announcement, however, by chairman Jim Koch, Jeff Fulbright’s informal adviser all those years ago, only added to the myths about craft beer in cans.
The Big Line
Koch’s announcement was front-page news in The Boston Globe. The Feb. 17 article began by framing the decision to can in revolutionary terms—with a capital R: “The project’s code name—Bunker Hill—hinted at the formidable challenge Boston Beer Co. faced: could the craft brewery that revolutionized American beer put its Sam Adams lager in a can without sacrificing the taste millions of consumers expect with every sip?”
Koch’s main concern about canning, according to the article, was that the metal might ruin the taste of his beer, never mind harm consumers’ health. It’s a concern that has dogged canned beer for decades. Fulbright confronted it from retailers and consumers in the early 1990s, and Katechis faced the same questions a decade later.
While some consumers say they taste a difference between canned and bottled beers, the science suggests any difference is in their heads.
Aluminum cans, for one, have been lined for decades with a coating between the metal and liquid. Ball Corp., the nation’s largest can manufacturer and Boston Beer’s partner on its new can, said through a spokesman that it and other manufacturers have been lining since “at least back to 1970 or so for aluminum cans when they were introduced, and even earlier for steel beverage cans.”
Had aluminum cans lacked such lining, it’s unlikely canned beer—canned anything, really—would have taken hold in the marketplace: Over time, the aluminum would have poisoned one consumer after another. As it stands, hundreds of millions have consumed beer from aluminum cans and lived to tell about it.
“The mythology is that cans used to suck because they didn’t have lining and now cans are lined,” said Jaime Gordon, technical sales representative for canning-machine manufacturer Cask Brewing Systems. “It’s a misperception—cans have always been lined. If they weren’t lined you wouldn’t be able to drink out of them.”
Controlled studies have further shown the lack of aluminum seepage into beer. In March 2008, the Health Ministry of Canada, where canned craft beer was born, examined the presence of bisphenol A (BPA) in different canned beers, including Stella Artois and Heineken (though no American craft-beer brands). BPA is an industrial chemical often used in the lining of metal cans as well as plastic containers like water bottles. Too much BPA can be unhealthy, especially for infants.
The Canadian study concluded that aluminum cans allowed minuscule amounts of BPA to seep into beer, not enough to be unhealthy, suggesting that modern cans keep aluminum out of beer but that the lining keeping it out stays away, too. In fact, the same study showed higher amounts of BPA in some canned soft drinks like Diet 7Up and Mountain Dew than in the canned beers.
Still, the myth persists that aluminum affects the beer—and that the single biggest technical, never mind mental, leap for any craft brewer wishing to can remains separating metal from beer.
“A lot of times people say, ‘Oh, yeah, they’ve got these new cans, with new lining,’” said Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at Sly Fox Brewery in Pottstown, PA, which in April became the first craft brewery to sell beer in cans with completely removal tops, a technology from Crown Holdings Inc. “It’s not like craft breweries jumped on canning just because the lining was good; it’s always been good.”
Green and Green
To hear an early pioneer like Katechis tell it, or a relative latecomer like Koch, the decision to can for a craft brewer arises largely with two goals in mind.
The first is consumer mobility. That is, craft brewers want their customers to be able to cart their brands to the softball diamond, the campground, the shore and other places where glass can be problematic. Here was then-Oskar Blues brewmaster Brian Lutz in a Modern Brewery Age Q-and-A shortly after the 2002 launch of canned Dale’s Pale Ale: Cans “make it easier for outdoor enthusiasts to take great beer into the back country, in the canoe, the ski pack, anywhere they want to.” And here was The Boston Globe in 2013 on Koch’s announcement: “[T]he plans are to roll out cans of Sam’s Boston Lager and Summer Ale in time for beach-cooler weather.”
However concerned craft brewers might be for consumers’ beer mobility, the single greatest driver of the canning trend has been what drove Jeff Fulbright’s decision more than 20 years ago: economics. Once the right equipment came along, it proved a lot cheaper for craft brewers to can than to bottle.
In 1999, Calgary, Alberta-based Cask Brewing Systems introduced a small, manual machine that could can two 12-ounce beers; it cost no more than $10,000 at a time when even used canning machines routinely sold in the six figures. The machine was originally aimed at brew-on-premises retailers; when that trend fizzled, Cask turned to craft brewers. Oskar Blues was its first American client.
The brewery’s success in cans was undeniable. Its Dale’s Pale Ale bested 23 other pale ales in a blind taste test run by New York Times critic Eric Asimov in 2005; and three years before that, Oskar Blues signed a deal with Denver-based Frontier Airlines to carry Dale’s on all fights—a decision, Frontier noted, based in part on the lighter packaging. (Lest another myth arise, Oskar Blues was not the first canned craft beer carried on a domestic airline: In the late 1990s, Continental carried Pete’s Summer Brew and Northwest carried James Page.)
Consumer mobility aside, canning can affect the mobility of a distributor, which can, in turn, affect the bottom line of brewers. According to a source familiar with beer distribution, the typical truckload of 20 pallets of 12-ounce bottles translates roughly to 54 to 60 cases; 20 pallets of 12-ounce cans, however, can total 72 to 84 cases.
The second goal driving craft-canning decisions, to hear most brewers tell it, arises from environmental concerns. Cans, simply put, are easier and cheaper to recycle than bottles. And the fact that distributors are able to ship more cans at a time than bottles can cut the amount of carbon emissions associated with transporting beer.
Canning, though, does have its dark side environmentally: namely, bauxite mining to get at the mineral precursor to aluminum called alumina. Bauxite mining entails leveling large areas of land and then drilling down (or detonating down, as the surface demands) to get at the alumina.
The process is akin to strip-mining for coal. As the New Belgium Brewing Co., which began canning popular brands like Fat Tire Pale Ale in 2008, advises on its website, consumers interested in having the lowest environmental impact should “drink draft beer out of a reusable cup.”
The Greatest Myth
As of May, 2013, 285 craft brewers were canning 956 beers covering 80 styles, according to CraftCans.com, a site that tracks the trend. Lagunitas Brewing Co. was not one of them.
In an email to All About Beer, the brewery’s founder, Tony Magee, said that concerns over the environmental impact of canning—including what happens to the can linings when recycled—had contributed to his decision to not follow the trend. (He also questioned the emphasis on canning as an environmental fix when few breweries try to curb the effects of that most prevalent of greenhouse gases, which is that most copious byproduct of fermentation: carbon dioxide.)
“It’s like if someone made a blanket statement that only lager beers were truly pure,” Magee said of the cans vs. bottles environmental debate. “There’s an implication that there were impurities in ales. It’s the things that didn’t get said that were the most important elements in evaluation.”
Perhaps this is the biggest myth, then, in craft-beer canning: that the trend’s upward arc is an inevitable one. There are major holdouts—Lagunitas is the sixth-biggest craft brewery by sales volume, according to the latest Brewers Association figures. And bottling seems to be inescapably entwined with American craft beer. Two cases in point: Jeff Fulbright began bottling Chief Oshkosh Red Lager as soon as he could, in June 1992; and the man who inspired him to start his own beer line, Jim Koch, allowed Whitbread, under license, to can his cream ale sold in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 1999.
Production was “modest,” according to Boston Beer.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. He can be reached via email and on Twitter.