Craft Brewers Market a Wealth of New Styles in Cans

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 30, Issue 3
July 1, 2009 By

The Red Derby is a homey, unpretentious hole-in-the-wall bar in Washington, DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Inside you’ll find a pile of board games like Risk and Operation, a poolroom in the back, and a chalkboard listing about 30 brands of beer.

A bonanza for beer connoisseurs?

There’s a catch: ask for a beer and you’ll get handed a can wearing a plastic cup. The Red Derby offers no draft or bottled beer: it’s strictly aluminum.

Should you feel deprived? Not all. If you’re in the mood for big, citrusy Pacific Northwest hops, try Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues in Longmont, CO, or Sea Hag IPA from New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge, CT. If you prefer a drink that’s malty and rich and smooth, pop open an Oskar Blues’ Old Chub, a first-class Scotch ale. Moo Thunder, from Butternuts Beer and Ale in Garrattsville, NY, is a dry stout that delivers everything you like about Guinness and more. For fans of imports, the menu includes Wittekerke, a Belgian white ale, and Baltik 5, a golden lager from Russia.

Increasingly, any type of beer you can get in a bottle you can get in a can as well. “We’re constantly hounding our reps for anything new in cans,” says Red Derby owner Dave Leventry. “They load so much easier than bottles,” he comments. “And draft beer? You don’t realize how much space you need to run a draft system!”

Cans tend to be cheaper than other packages, he adds, enabling him to offer 12 ounce pours of many better beers for $4, quite cheap by the standards of this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Marty Jones also sings the praises of canned beer… literally. The self-described “lead singer and idea man” for Oskar Blues and Brian O’Reilly of the Sly Fox (another canning microbrewery) performed a duet during Philly Beer Week to the tune of “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”:

Cans are a many splendored thing

‘Cause they keep beer fresh the very best from bad, bad things

No UV light can touch it, no oxygen can stale it

A double seam no bottle cap can match…

Getting Canned

It’s been seven years since Oskar Blues became the first U.S. microbrewery to operate a canning line, and the taboos against packaging better beer in cans have fallen fast and hard. Oskar Blues followed up its initial efforts with even bigger beers, including an imperial IPA dubbed Gordon (Jones describes it as a “double red,” but that’s a minor stylistic quibble) and an imperial stout named Ten Fidy, perhaps the strongest (10 percent alcohol by volume) and darkest beer ever packaged in aluminum containers.

For its latest effort, Oskar Blues has gone in the opposite direction, releasing a quaffable Czech-style pilsner under the brand name Mama’s Little Yella Pils. The introduction was delayed, reports Jones, because of a labeling tussle with the federal Tax and Trade Bureau. Regulators disallowed the statement “Take two and call us in the morning” as well as the admonition “Pop this!” Reflects Jones: “They stripped the can of all its fun! We need more humor at the federal level.”

Sly Fox, which operates a brewpub/canning facility in Royersford, PA, has also been breaking new ground. The brewery’s Pikeland Pils won a gold medal in the German-style Pilsner category at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival in Denver. “We didn’t do anything special with it, we just sent along a six-pack of cans,” says manager of brewery operations Tim Ohst.

Sly Fox is currently hatching plans to become the first American brewery to package beer (its O’Reilly’s Stout) in 16-ounce “widget” cans. This type of package, introduced to the United States by Guinness in 1991, contains a plastic cartridge into which some beer and nitrogen gas is forced under pressure. When the top is punched in and the pressure released, the gas streams out rapidly, roiling the beer and creating the rich, creamy head of foam typical of a draft stout.

“It’ll be quite an undertaking,” promises Ohst. The brewery will have to order the cans from a European manufacturer who sells them in minimum lots of around 500,000. The brew crew also will have to rig up a liquid nitrogen drip to inject the gas into the can. But if all goes well, Ohst hopes to have the cans on the market by St. Patrick’s Day 2010.

Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz, CA, a microbrewery called Uncommon Brewers is living up to its name by marketing the first Belgian-style abbey ale in a can. This quirky little operation is one of numerous startups that have elected to sidestep bottling and proceed directly to canning. Brewery president Alec Stefansky has jerry-rigged a mash tun from an old industrial butter churn and uses a two-head manual canner mounted to a surplus schoolteacher’s desk. “We’re operating without a glycol system,” he relates. “Everything’s fermenting at whatever temperature it wants to ferment at.”

Uncommon Brewers’ first canned release is Siamese Twin Ale, which Stefansky describes as a dubbel spiced with coriander, lemongrass and kaffir lime… a classic Belgian style with traditional Thai seasonings. He hopes to follow that up with Golden State Ale, a strong golden ale flavored with poppy seeds, and a Baltic porter brewed with star anise and licorice.

Other microbrewers are canning similarly uncategorical beers. Surly Brewing Co. in Brooklyn Center, MN, recently debuted 16-ounce cans of Coffee Bender, an American brown ale/porter hybrid dosed with locally roasted Guatemalan coffee. The 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco offers 12-ounce cans of its watermelon wheat ale.

One wonders what else American craft brewers will introduce to the market by the time the 75th anniversary of the beer can rolls around on January 24, 2010.

No Respect

It was in 1935, less than two years after the end of Prohibition, that the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co. in Newark, NJ. became the first brewery to offer beer—specifically its Krueger Cream Ale—in cans. The original beer cans, manufactured by the American Can Co. in Greenwich, CT, were made of steel and weighed nearly four ounces. They had a flat metal top that had to be perforated with an unwieldy can opener called a “church key” because it resembled the oversized keys that sextants would carry. (The easy-open cans we know today were nearly 40 years in the future. Not until 1962 did the Pittsburgh Brewing Co. release Iron City cans with a pull tab that could be easily peeled off.)

To prevent the beer from reacting with the steel to form foul-tasting metallic salts, the American Can Co, coated the insides of the cans with a plastic lining it trademarked as “vinyllite.” Krueger apparently had some trepidation, as they chose to debut the new package in Richmond, VA, a minor beer market on the fringe of its territory. But the public embraced the beer can, and by the end of 1935, nearly two dozen American brewers (including some sizable companies like Schlitz) were marketing some type of can.

It wasn’t until 1969, however, the year of the moon landing and Woodstock, that cans surpassed bottles in popularity. That year more than 18 billion beer cans rolled off packaging lines. By that point, the pull tap had become an industry standard and Coors had switched to aluminum, a lighter, less reactive metal that would eventually replace steel as the preferred material for cans.

And yet this workhorse of a container still got little respect. It was associated with bulk commodities like tomato paste and baked beans, not connoisseurs’ beverages.

By the mid-1990s a few craft brewers were contract-canning some of their beer at older regional breweries with canning lines. Generally, however, they only packaged more mass-market styles, like amber lager and golden ale, in cans, and limited sales to venues like golf courses and sports stadiums that prohibited glass.

Boston Beer Co. briefly marketed a Samuel Adams Cream Ale in cans in Great Britain, but company founder Jim Koch has resisted canning his beers for the American market, asserting that even minor breaks in the can’s lining can result in the beer acquiring an unpleasant metallic twang. Other brewers, while not impugning the quality of canned beer, felt that it just didn’t fit the image they wanted to project.

But there was an element of sour grapes in their putdowns. Canning lines were expensive, high maintenance pieces of equipment. Cans were sold in bulk, several million units at a time. Canning was simply beyond the means of most craft breweries.

Yes You Can

A Calgary-based company called Cask Brewing Systems leveled the playing field in 1999 by introducing a manually operated canner with a two-head filler and single-head seamer that was small enough to fit on a tabletop. It cost under $10,000, compared to the quarter of a million that a high-speed canning line might set you back. “When we first started displaying it at trade shows, people thought we were nuts,” recalls company president Peter Love.

Oskar Blues, a Lyons, CO, brewpub, agreed to become the first U.S. customer in 2002. In the intervening years, the company has seen its output increase from about 700 barrels annually to nearly 20,000 barrels in 2008. Last year, Oskar Blues inaugurated a brand new 35,000 square-foot production facility in Longmont, CO. You can buy their beers in 23 states. And they’ve graduated from that labor-intensive early model to a Chinese machine that can fill 150 cans a minute. “We’ve increased our canning speed 500 percent,” notes Jones.

Cask Brewing’s clients now number about 40 U.S. breweries, from Sleeping Lady Brewing Co. in Alaska to Maui Brewing Co. in Hawaii, from Caldera Brewing Co. in Oregon to Coastal Extreme Brewing Co. in Rhode Island. One of their most recent customers is Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Boonville, CA. The brewery, well-known for brands like Poleeko Gold, Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout and Hop Ottin IPA, was in the process of deciding which of its beers to can as we went to press.

Breweries cite different reasons for getting into cans. Some appreciate the fact that the can is opaque to all light, and won’t admit UV rays that would break down hop compounds and give the beer an unpleasant “skunky” aroma. Others are won over by the can’s compactness and lightness. Bjorn Nabozney, cofounder of Big Sky Brewing Co. in Missoula, MT, notes that a case of cans weighs only about 20 pounds, compared to 35 pounds for a case of glass bottles. Breweries with a strong green ethic will cite the recyclability of cans. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, more than half of all aluminum cans are recycled, and recycling saves 95 percent of the energy used to manufacture the cans from raw ore.

Still another major reason is the sheer novelty of better beer in cans. With about 1,400 craft breweries operating in the United States, and probably not many more than 50 canning, a lot of markets are under-served… or not served at all.

“We were getting calls from all over the state,” says assistant brewer George Dusek of Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery in Chapel Hill, NC, in regard to cans of their Leaderboard Trophy Lager and Rams Head IPA. “At one point a guy from Knoxville, TN, said our beer was there. We have no idea how it got there!”

Dusek said Top of the Hill has had to cut back drastically on canning in order to have enough beer to sell over the bar. They’ve dropped their outside accounts, but you can still buy six-packs at the brewpub. “I think the demand is there,” he adds. “It’d be super to build a whole new brewery to satisfy that demand, but you can’t justify it in this economy.”

Who’s Next?

Until recently, most canning was done either by the megabreweries or tiny brewpubs and microbreweries. There didn’t seem to be much interest among mid-sized operations. That changed dramatically in 2008 when New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, CO, began packaging its flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale in 12-ounce aluminum cans.

According to media relations director Bryan Simpson, New Belgium is using a German machine capable of filling 60 cans per minute. By contrast, the brewery’s bottling line does 700 containers a minute. “It’s almost cozy to see the canning line operate!” he laughs. Simpson doesn’t see cans—a second beer, Sunshine Wheat, was set to join Fat Tire in aluminum this spring—accounting for more than 2-3 percent of New Belgium’s volume anywhere in the near future.

Interestingly, the canned version of Fat Tire is not identical to the bottled version. New Belgium was worried about the oxygen pickup of the cans, Simpson explains, so the brewery adds a dollop of yeast slurry to the cans before they’re sealed. The idea is that the yeast cells will consume the oxygen in the head of the can, preventing it from reacting with the beer and giving it a stale, cardboardy flavor. This is not done with the bottled Fat Tire.

An expert panel of tasters, insists Bryan, sampled both versions and could detect no discernible difference. But a minority opinion, he admits, holds that the canned version of Fat Tire has a slightly richer mouthfeel.

Earlier this spring, another sizable microbrewery, Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, MO, announced that as of April 1 it would release its best-selling Unfiltered Wheat Beer in 16-ounce aluminum bottles from the EXAL Corporation in Youngstown, OH. These containers resemble the old “conetop” cans, which were in use from 1935 through the late 1950s and which are highly prized by can collectors today. But they’re sleeker, lighter, and fabricated out of a single piece of metal, so that the spout doesn’t have to be welded to the body of the can.

Boulevard’s director of marketing Jerry Ragonese said that the aluminum bottles will open up new markets such as golf courses, parks, outdoor concerts and other venues where fear of broken glass makes standard bottles unwelcome. Also, the new containers can be filled on a standard bottling line with minor adjustments. “They’re expensive, but they’re worth it,” maintains Ragonese.

If the can is the new frontier for craft brewing, there’s still a lot of unstaked territory. Who will be the first to market a barley wine in cans? A Belgian-style framboise? An American wild ale?

The bottleneck is demand. Cask Brewing Systems acts as a broker between its clients and the Ball Corporation, the country’s largest manufacturer of cans. It’s whittled down the minimum order to 25 pallets, or 155,000 cans. But that’s still a big investment to sit on if your beer is going to sell in dribs and drabs.

What’s more, the cans arrive pre-painted, so you can only use them for a single brand. Theoretically, it’s possible to buy unpainted cans and slap adhesive labels on them. That’s what Oskar Blues did with its first run of Gordon. But it’s tedious grunt work, advises Marty Jones, and is best avoided.

While we wait for barley wine in cans, another barrier is being leveled. According to Jones, elegant restaurants are considering the merits of beer in cans. He cites Duo Restaurant, a Denver bistro offering seasonal American cuisine whose pastry chef was recently named a semi-finalist for a prestigious James Beard Foundation award.

“Many people feel it’s the best restaurant in Denver, and they carry three or four of our beers,” comments Jones. “Some restaurants think cans are gauche, they want tap handles. But these guys have no reservations about putting our cans down on a white tablecloth aside world-class food.”