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Craft Beer in Cans Hits the Tipping Point


When Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company, wrote the Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights in July, 2005, his crystal ball wasn’t made by the Ball Corporation. “Beer shall be offered in bottles, not cans, so that no brew is jeopardized with the taste of metal” seemed smart enough at the time. Koch was fighting against the damaged reputation cans had earned since they first appeared in the market on January 24, 1935. But this icon of craft beer has changed direction.

Gottfried Kruger Brewing Company was the first to can beer, followed in fast form by the big three at that time: Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and Schlitz. In those days, metals could infuse beer with gnarly flavors. Despite that, beer in cans was perceived as premium, and sales were robust. During World War II, rationing became necessary, as raw materials were greatly depleted during the war effort. The use of cans was interrupted, but only temporarily.

In the 50s and 60s, cans gained shelf presence, with huge marketing budgets featuring hot women and dumbed-down beer. Schlitz came out of the woodwork with the 24-ounce “Tall Boy” can. When craft brewers came on the scene by the late 70s, they did their best to distance themselves from the mega-brewers, including their use of cans. At that time, canning lines were expensive, anyway. For a small brewing company, canning was impractical.

In 2002, Dale Katechis of Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colorado, made an out-of-the-box decision to market two of his most popular beers in cans. He worked with the Ball Corporation and Cask Brewing Systems to deliver Old Chub Scottish-Style Ale and Dale’s Pale Ale in cans, calling it the “Canned Beer Apocalypse.” That single act lit an explosion through the craft beer movement. Oskar Blues can rightfully be called the “Birthplace of the Craft Beer Can Revolution.”

In 2004, British brewers held an experimental study at the Great British Beer Festival, asking 13 world beer experts to identify the source of packaging for the beers they were presented. These authority figures hailed from five countries. With a failure rate of 62.4%, the myth of metallic flavor sneaking into canned beer was heartily dismissed.

But the aluminum can’s identification with poor flavor and cheap beer ran deep in the minds of many, including Jim Koch. Sam Adams beer was to be served in bottles or on draft, a wise decision on his part at that time. But the idea of craft beer in cans had power behind it: practical power, environmental power, and power to preserve flavor and freshness. Oskar Blues had gained the spotlight, and other craft brewers noticed.

By 2010, over 50 craft breweries packaged beer in cans. Just two years later, that number had more than doubled. It was time for Jim Koch to re-evaluate his aversion to cans.

As with everything Jim Koch does, he thoroughly researched the subject, employing the assistance of engineers, sensory specialists, consultants, and can manufacturers to understand the processes and technology in can production, along with the ergonomics, flavor impact and sensory delivery on the palate. He designed a can with a flared lip and a wider top, to provide the beer drinker with a closer sensation to what they would experience when drinking beer from a glass. In fact, he felt so strongly about his new can that he has a patent pending on it. The new can debuts in the summer of 2013.

Canned craft beer is big business, with over 635 canned craft beers available in 2012. They can be broken down into categories:

8 ounce Stubby

  • Uncommon Brewers of Santa Cruz, as used for their American Strong Ale
8.4 ounce Cans
  • These little cans are ideal for beers with high AVBs and are used by 21st Amendment for Lower De Boom Barley Wine
12 ounce Cans
  • 60% of canned craft beers are packaged in this size can. Most are a standard shape.
  • Maui Brewing has a can that curves in at the top in steps
  • Slim Can, as used by Sixpoint Brewery for Resin and 3Beans
  • Sam Can, patent pending for Boston Beer Company
  • Steel, flat top can, which requires an old-fashioned Church Key to open, made for Churchkey Pilsner
  • Slimmer and taller can, as used for Colorado Native Lager, brewed by AC Golden (Coors) of Colorado
16 ounce Pint Cans
  • Used by Spilker Ales forHopluia from 2005 to 2007
  • Surly and Kettlehouse currently package in 16-ouncers
19.2 ounce Cans
  • Royal Pint Cans, as used by Oskar Blues to celebrate their 10th anniversary. They call them “Stovepipes.”
24 ounce Tall Boy Cans
  • First used by Schlitz in the 50s
  • Currently used by Moat Mountain Brewing Company, New Hampshire, and TailGate Beer of California
Aluminum Bottles
  • Big Sky, Boulevard, and Oskar Blues/Sun King collaboration beers are in 16 ouncers
  • 16 Mile of Delaware and Base Camp of Oregon use 22 ouncers
The Ball Corporation, Cask Brewing Systems, Hi Cone and Mumm Products sponsored the 2012 Canny Awards, launching the first competition for can graphics in America. Trophies, emblazoned with the winning cans built into the design of each, were awarded for: Best Character, Best Graphics Design, Best Illustration of Beer Name, Best Local Tie-in, Best Seasonal, Best Shelf Presence, and Best Use of Color. Three Grand prize winners were also named:
  • Craft Can of the Year: 21st Amendment for Bitter American Extra Pale Ale
  • 2nd Place: DC Brau for The Corruption IPA
  • 3rd Place: Moab Brewery for Johnny’s American IPA
Overall, cans provide great advantages to the consumer. They protect beer from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light; there is minimal exposure to dissolved oxygen; being half the weight of bottled beer, they reduce shipping costs; they are durable; and their carbon footprint is more environmentally friendly, giving cans an A+ for the well-being of future generations. Although the cost of mining bauxite to make aluminum is high, recycling saves 95% of the energy and emissions used to make a new can. The Aluminum Association Trade Group and Alcoa have set goals of achieving a 75% rate of aluminum can recycling in North America by 2015. “Can” anything be better than that?

Cheers!

Keep a traditional Church Key Opener on hand:
OXO SteeL Bottle Opener

Keep your canned beer the right temperature:
EdgeStar 84 Soda Can Beverage Cooler Fridge - Stainless Steel

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Battle of the Beers - Canned Beer vs. Jim Koch
Samuel Adams Longshot 2008
Jim Koch Presents Samuel Adams in Philadelphia
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Content copyright © 2014 by Carolyn Smagalski. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Carolyn Smagalski. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Carolyn Smagalski for details.

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