The Return of the Beer Can
We’re accustomed to pouring fine wines and champagnes from sleekly tapered green bottles with foil and corks. On the other hand, everyday food items—tomato paste, evaporated milk, chili—we scoop out of metal cylinders.
Maybe that’s why the beer can gets no respect. It’s our favorite container for sipping suds out of… Americans emptied about 35 billion of them last year. But mention the beer can, and what comes to mind? Maybe Homer Simpson passed out on his couch, surrounded by drained Duff cans, or John Belushi crushing the empties against his forehead in Animal House.
Eight years ago, in researching an article for a trade magazine, I asked several leading craft brewers about the possibility of their canning beer. “Cans are for baked beans and soups, not fine beverages,” sniffed one. “I mean, barley wine in a can?!” asked another in disbelief.
Dale Katechis was once a scoffer. Katechis is the owner of Oskar Blues, a brewpub in Lyons, CO. “It initially started as a joke,” he said of his venture into canning. “Our brewer and I laughed about it. We called beer in cans ‘pusillanimous beer.’”
“One day I decided to make a phone call and start doing research. Our goal was to do something that was pretty zany at the time and kind of fun.”
Katechis decided to invest in a manual canner and seamer manufactured by a Canadian business called Cask Brewing Systems. In late 2002, Dale’s Pale Ale appeared in multi-hued aluminum containers. “Big, eh?” reads the slogan on the rim of the can. Indeed, Dale’s Pale Ale, measuring over 60 IBUs and vigorously dry-hopped with Cascades, is probably the most aggressively flavored beer ever canned in America. With an annual capacity, at the time, of about 800 barrels, Oskar Blues became possibly the smallest U.S. brewer ever to operate its own canning line.
The initial product was such a success that Katechis followed up by canning his Old Chub Scottish-Style Ale, a roasty, 8%-alcohol-by-volume winter warmer of a beer. In the 2-1/2 years since then, he’s built a new $2 million brewery, allowing Oskar Blues to triple its output. And if demand ever warrants, he has, waiting in the wings, a used Angelus filler purchased from an RC Cola plant in Columbus, GA. This “beast of a machine,” as Katechis calls it, can turn out up to 1,000 cans a minute.
Katechis ticks off the advantages of the can. Unlike a bottle, it won’t shatter into a hundred pieces when dropped, so it’s welcome on beaches, golf course and campsites where bottles are forbidden. It’s lighter than glass and more compact, so it’s preferred aboard airlines, where space is at a premium. (Katechis’ beers are served aboard Frontier Airlines). The can is completely opaque, so the beer won’t get lightstruck. Oxygen pick-up levels are as low or lower as with bottled beer. Once you’ve drained the can, you can easily stomp it flat and haul it to the nearest recycling center.
Some connoisseurs complain about a “tinny” taste in canned beer, but it’s all in their head, asserts Jim Fisher, vice president of packaging industry affairs for the Ball Corporation, the largest manufacturer of cans in North America. He notes that with modern aluminum cans, not only the insides but the lids are coated with a water-based epoxy, so that your lips never touch metal even when you drink directly from the can. “Any perception of metal is a perception as opposed to reality,” he insists.
“We’ve dispelled the myth of what cans have and don’t have to offer,” says Katechis. Partly due to his proselytizing, over a dozen U.S. microbreweries and brewpubs have added canning equipment. Micro-canners are popping up in the most unlikely places.
Can-vassing the Nation
Like Krebs, OK, where Pete’s Place has been producing the nation’s first can-conditioned beer. Pete’s Place may be the oldest brewpub in the U.S. When he opened his restaurant in 1925, founder Pete Prichard supplied a bootleg brew called “Choc” to the thirsty coalminers who formed his clientele. The beer was named after local Choctaw Indians who shared their recipe with Italian immigrants. In 1995, grandson Joe Prichard decided to go legitimate and got the place licensed as a brewpub. He invested in a manual canner after seeing Katechis’ machine in action. “Dale canned some of our beer for us, and sent it back to us,” says brewer Michael Lalli.
Lalli says of Choc, “There’s no filtration, so there is still yeast in the beer. I prime it with dextrose in the brite tank before canning. As far as I know, nobody’s ever done it before, but we think something magic happens when you do it that way.” Choc won a bronze medal in the American wheat beer category at the 2000 Great American Beer Festival. Now you can buy the cans over the bar at Pete’s Place or in select outlets throughout Oklahoma for $7 a six-pack.
Half a continent away in Ukiah, CA, Bret Cooperrider has just released what’s probably the country’s first organic beer in a can. Cooperrider is the general manager and brewmaster for Ukiah Brewing Co., a brewpub that’s one of only two eating establishments in the U.S. to be certified organic. With a few exceptions, all of the 700 food and beverage items on his menu are produced without the use of artificial fertilizers or pesticides, and in keeping with sustainable agricultural practices.
Cooperrider says of his Pilsner Ukiah, “I had never brewed a lager before, but I’m a huge fan of Pilsner Urquell. This is a little bigger in body, and more heavily hopped.” He admits the Czech Saaz hops are not organic, but since they make up such a small percentage of the beer’s weight, he was still able to get his certification. Why get into cans? “A lot of our clientele are very outdoorsy: they’re into kayaking, river rafting, etc. I also appreciate the ease of recycling aluminum cans.”
In Houghton, a college town of about 10,000 on Michigan’s upper peninsula, Dick Gray of Keweenah Brewing Co. has decided to sidestep bottling and go directly into canning. Local drinkers can buy the brewery’s Pick Axe Blonde in cans, and a second product, Red Jacket Amber, is expected in the near future. Owner Gray is actually based in Denver, CO, where he runs an oil and gas exploration company. But he hails from Michigan, and knows the territory well. “You’ve got to like the outdoors, you’ve got to like winter,” he says of life in northern Michigan, where hunting and snowmobiling are major pastimes. Sportsmen like to tote around the lighter, more compact container. And students of legal age, adds Gray, appreciate the cans because they’re not allowed to have bottles at their parties.
Micro-canning is gaining a toehold in nearly every corner of the nation, from Anchorage, Alaska, where Sleeping Lady Brewing Co. is offering Urban Wilderness Pale Ale in cans, to Top of the Hill Brewing Co. in Chapel Hill, NC, where company president Scott Maitland was about to begin canning a lager and an IPA. New England is a hotbed, with at least five microbreweries now canning. “We sell a lot of beer along the coastline… glass doesn’t travel on beaches or on boats,” says Brent Ryan of Coastal Extreme Brewing Co. in Middletown, RI, whose Hurricane Amber Ale is available in aluminum.
Meanwhile, Big Sky Brewing Co. in Missoula, Montana has taken a different approach, opting for sleek, shiny 14.5-oz aluminum bottles. The bottles, manufactured by the Cebal Corporation of Europe, are so light that the breeze from an idling fan can tip over an empty container. In 2003, Big Sky introduced two brands—Moose Drool Brown Ale and Scape Goat Pale Ale—in the new package. The first depicted a motorcycle-riding moose, the second a tartan-clad goat lugging golf clubs. Big Sky has changed the design periodically, much to the delight of can collectors.
The advantage of the aluminum bottles, asserts Big Sky’s Bjorn Nabonzney, is that you can run them through a regular bottling line with minor adjustments. The down side is that they’re more expensive than glass. Individual bottles are retailing for about $2 a bottle, according to Nabonzney. He expects the price to come down as more breweries invest in the package.
And that’s exactly what’s happening. Last summer, Pittsburgh Brewing Co, released its flagship Iron City beer in aluminum bottles manufactured at a plant in Mercer County, PA. The bottles feature an IC logo from the 1940s, and the slogan “Save Our City” on the back. It’s not clear how buying aluminum beer bottles will save a city whose fortunes have risen and fallen with the steel industry. But the package is helping a struggling regional brewery win back some market share from the national breweries.
Of course, the big boys didn’t get that way by letting the grass grow under the feet, so it’s hardly surprising that Anheuser-Busch has premiered its own version of this new container. Currently being test-marketed in 14 cities nationwide are 16-oz aluminum bottles of Michelob, Michelob Light and Anheuser Select. The Michelob bottles are interesting in that they eschew the usual logo in favor of a large stylized letter “M’ and splashes of royal blue and gold. “They’re a little more cutting edge, more sophisticated, upscale…’” says Rick Leininger, director of Michelob brands.
And if any brewers still have doubts about the image of the can, consider this: the Niebaum-Coppola Winery in Rutherford, CA. has reportedly launched the Sofia Mini, a pink can containing sparkling white wine, with a straw attached. The package is named after owner Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia, and sells for $20 a four-pack.
A Whirlwind History of the Beer Can
In many ways, the current revolution in canning mirrors what happened almost 70 years ago to the day as I’m writing this. The first patents for canning food were granted in the early nineteenth century, but more than a century elapsed before beer appeared in cans. That’s because beer, as a carbonated, alcoholic beverage, presented special challenges. Canning beer requires a pressure of 80-90 pounds per square inch, three times that of most other foodstuffs. Additionally, the alcohol tends to react with metal to form foul-tasting salts.
In 1934, the American Can Company in Greenwich, Conn. trademarked the name “Keglined” for a flat-top, steel-and-tin can with an inert plastic liner called “Vinylite.” It took months of negotiations to convince the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co. of Newark, NJ,to be its guinea pig. American Can Company had to offer them a sweetheart deal: it would install the equipment for free, and remove it if the cans proved a flop. To protect its reputation, the brewery elected to lead with its Krueger Cream Ale (rather than its flagship lager), and to test-market the container in Richmond, VA, a small, outlying market.
On January 24, 1935, the first beer cans went on sale. Krueger’s jitters turned out to be groundless; by June, the brewery’s production was up 550% over the previous year.
An early ad for the Keglined cans touts their advantages over the bottle: “Imagine buying Beer or Ale for your home without paying a bottle deposit, without the trouble and effort of making bottle returns! Imagine being able to get twice as much in the same space in your ice-box!”
One disadvantage was that you needed a can opener to punch through the steel lid. Liquor stores gave away openers by the thousands, and early cans were printed with instructions for perforating the top.
In September 1935, Continental Can Company introduced a different type of package officially called the “cap-sealed” can and informally known as the “cone-top.” Unlike today’s seamless aluminum bottles, this steel container consisted of three parts soldered together and resembled a modern brake fluid container. Schlitz, a large national company, was the first to use cone-tops. But the container held the most appeal for small breweries, because you could fill it on a standard bottling line, without an expensive investment in new equipment.
The cone-top, however, lacked several of the advantages of the flat-top can: it was less compact, and took longer to fill. As small breweries fell by the wayside, the demand for cone-tops declined, and the package was phased out entirely in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Today, cone-tops are highly prized by collectors.
During the 1950s, Coors took the bold step of switching to aluminum. After five years of R&D and a $10 million investment, the brewery filled its first aluminum can—a 7-oz pony—in 1959. Today, aluminum is the industry standard.
In 1962, Alcoa and the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. debuted the pull-tab (or “snap top”) on cans of Iron City, freeing beer consumers from the drudgery of toting a can opener. A ring was later added to the tab to make it easier to grasp. Most pull tabs were casually discarded, where they could lacerate feet or be swallowed by wildlife. Environmentalists squawked, and the industry replaced them with the non-detachable push-tabs in use today.
Another watershed year was 1991, when Guinness released Pub Draught Stout in the United States in a 14.9-oz can with an internal device called the “smoothifier” or “widget.” This plastic cartridge contained a small amount of beer and nitrogen gas under intense pressure. When the tab was pressed in, the fluid gushed out of the smoothifier, roiling the beer and producing the thick, billowy head you’d expect from a draft pour. For many, the widget can was the first inkling that you could get quality beer from a can.
During the 1990s, a few older regional breweries released better beers in cans, including Yuengling with its Black and Tan and Lord Chesterfield Ale, and the Leinenkugel Brewing Co with its Honey Weiss and Berry Weiss. A few smaller craft breweries experimented with 5-liter German “mini-kegs” or contracted out a canned version of their product to larger breweries. Portland Brewing Co. in Portland, OR, for example, produces cans of its McTarnahan’s Amber Ale and Highlander Pale Ale at the August Schell Brewing Co. in New Ulm, MN.
Besides their blue-collar image, a problem with cans is that the packaging equipment, until recently, was prohibitively expensive for a small operation. A high-speed canner and seamer capable of churning out 500-1,000 cans a minute might cost a quarter of a million dollars and upwards. In addition, can manufacturers sold their product in bulk; a customer might have to commit to buying 4 million units at a time.
“The high-speed systems were intimidating from a financial and production standpoint,” comments Jim Fisher of the Ball Corporation. “Until Cask Brewing Systems came along, there was no way for a microbrewer to make the transition.”
The Calgary-headquartered company began selling its manual canners in the late 1990s. The basic model, minus the bells and whistles, costs under $10,000 and is small enough that you can transport it in the back of a car. The device, according to Cask Brewing sales rep Kersten Kloss, consists of a filler, seamer and six-packer, and requires two people to operate. “The empty can is like a cup,” elaborates Kloss. “You load them two at a time into the machine, then trip a switch to start the filling process.” Once the can is filled, the seamer operator places the lid on top of the foaming beer, pulls another lever and the machine rolls the lid over the rim of the can, crimping and tightening it.
Cask Brewing also scored a breakthrough when it persuaded several large can manufacturers to sell cans by the truckload, in minimum lots of around 150,000 about 450 barrels worth of beer. “We convinced them that the image of the can was being improved by all these high-end beers,” says Kloss.
A disadvantage of the manual canner is that it’s labor intensive. Rob Leonard of New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge, CT. says he’s happy with his Atlantic City Amber and Elm City Lager in cans. But he grouses, “It’s painful to go through 80 cases in four hours. It’s monotonous monkey work. You start hallucinating after a while.” For this reason, Cask Brewing introduced a higher-speed, automated canner which is now in use at breweries like Oskar Blues and Stone Coast Brewing Co. in Portland, ME.
Today, Cask Brewing Systems is an international firm, with clients in such far-flung areas as Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria and Finland.
The Can of the Future
Today’s featherweight aluminum cylinders are a far cry from the clunky steel cans that debuted in 1935. Undoubtedly, the beer can will continue to evolve. A few years ago, a Bradenton, Fla. Firm called Tempra Technology titillated the beer world by announcing that it was developing a can with a built-in refrigerator. Twisting the can’s lid causes the rapid evaporation of a water-based gel inside, which drops the temperature of the contents by 30 degrees in three minutes.
Fisher thought it unlikely that this self-cooling can would ever be more than a novelty. Refrigeration is widely available in all developed countries, he notes. And drinkers in underdeveloped countries would probably not be able to afford such a premium-priced package. Instead, Fisher believes that the next big breakthrough in the can world will be an aluminum bottle with a twist-off cap. “Reclosable cans are already very popular in Japan,” he adds.
For craft beer aficionados, the contents may be of more importance than the container. Although there is a greater variety of beer available in cans than ever before, the selection is still paltry compared to bottles. Most micro-canners have opted for balanced, middle-of-the-road styles like golden ale, amber ale and lager. You won’t find an American brewer canning an imperial IPA, a dubbel or a triple, or a porter or stout of any kind.
There’s an obvious reason for this. Cans come pre-printed with the brand name on them. If you’re ordering a truckload of cans at a time, you’d better be sure you can sell all that beer!
European brewers have been more adventurous. Wittekerke, a Belgian white ale, has been spotted in this country in a sky-blue can. Young’ Double Chocolate Stout, a unique British brew made with Cadbury bars, has also been packaged in aluminum. A fellow beer writer, Gregg Wiggins, returned from an Australian vacation with some Gold Label Very Strong Special Beer, a barley wine packaged in a 9.5-oz can by Interbrew (now InBev) of Luton, UK.
“I would say it’s only a matter of time,” says Kloss regarding the canning of more assertive, “beer geeky” styles. He also claims he’s had “extensive conversations” with some of the larger craft breweries about canning beer.
Someday soon we might overhear the following conversation:
“Hello, Ajax Liquors, do you have any good Belgians in a can?”
“Why, of course we do.”
“Then you better let them out before they suffocate!”
Greg Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, a long-time resident of Wahington, DC, and a frequent contributor to beer-related publications.