Craft in Cans

The craft beer can revolution is now in its tenth year.

It began in 2002 when Oskar Blues, a small brewpub in Lyons, Colo., claimed the title of first craft brewery in the United States to purchase a modest, hand-operated canning line using its own filler and seamer to capture craft beers’ pure goodness. They began canning their Dale’s Pale Ale, an assertively hoppy amber ale that packed more IBUs (international bitterness units) than many IPAs, sending non-hop heads straight for another Porter.

Previous to Oskar Blues’ breakthrough, craft brewers tended to turn up their noses at canned beer, often voicing the opinion that cans were a container more fit for Spam than a nation building nectar, perfected in classy micro breweries for discerning palates. But the bottom line was really that canning lines were too big, fast and expensive before a Canadian company called Cask Brewing Systems began offering cheap, portable models that could fit in the bed of a pickup truck or in a corner of your brewery.

Today, there are 179 craft breweries in the United States canning beer, according to the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo. Some of the bigger ones (Sierra Nevada Brewing for instance, or New Belgium) are using automated systems that far outpace the earlier manual fillers and seamers and are able to package maybe a dozen cans a minute.

Brewers and beer lovers appreciate the fact that cans are lighter and more compact than bottles, reducing shipping costs. They won’t shatter into a thousand pieces if dropped, so they’re welcome in places like beaches and sports stadiums where glass is forbidden. And doing away with the heavy lifting and embarrassing clanking after a weekend get together on the hazy morning trash run to the dumpster will never be missed thanks to cans!

Best of all, they’re completely opaque, shutting out that great enemy of beer, light. Light breaks down chemical compounds and gives your favorite brew a foul, skunk-funk aroma.

Critics of cans claim they give beer a metallic taste. Sure, if your drink directly from the can and press your lips against the lid. But please tell me you don’t really do that…please. In fact, today’s aluminum cans have a thin but durable BPA-free plastic lining that keeps the beer from contact with the metal. Pour the beer into a glass and it will taste, somewhat surprisingly, perfect.

But the real revolution in canned beer is that you can now enjoy almost any style of beer out of aluminum as well as the industry-standard glass bottles that are hand-and-glove for showcasing classically great beer with such flavor intensity and blended complexity, they leave wine drinkers in the dark.

For your imagination and taste buds delight, I put together a “dream team” six-pack for your reading enjoyment and to emphasize just how many great craft breweries are really getting into cans, starting with a 16-ounce “spacecan” of Apollo, the latest launch from Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, NY. It’s a Bavarian-style wheat beer with characteristic fruit and clove flavors and a billowy white head.

Continue with Shift, New Belgium Brewing Co.’s latest offering, a crisp pale lager (quite sessionable at 5% alcohol by volume) that comes in four-packs of 16-oz cans. It’s named after the end-of-shift beers that brewery employees enjoy after a hard day’s work.

Festie from Starr Hill Brewing Co. in Crozet, Va., is a malty amber lager roughly in the Oktoberfest style, but it’s available year-around in six-packs of 12 ouncers.

Ellie’s Brown Ale from Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo. is a nutty, chocolatey brown ale in 12-ounce cans. It’s named after founder Adam Avery’s late chocolate lab, who’s depicted on the label.

Next, how about a Maui CoCoNut Porter in a 12-ounce can, a roasty, robust porter with a smidge of toasted coconut flavor, from Maui Brewing Co. in Lahaina, Hawaii. This one emerged the winner in the Washington Post’s annual Beer Madness competition this past March.

And if you’re still thirsty, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has released 16-oz. cans of its Torpedo Extra IPA, flavored with Citra hops that lend it a resiny, tropical-fruit flavor. Soon to arrive: 12-ounce cans of Long Hammer IPA, a more balanced take on the style from the Redhook Ale Brewery in Woodinville, Wash.

Finally, enjoy a nightcap of Deviant Dale’s Pale Ale, a strong (8% alcohol by volume), amazingly pungent double IPA in a pint-sized can. This pumped-up version of Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues might be the hoppiest offering in a can yet.

New selections are becoming available all the time. One of the more recent breweries to join the canned revolution is the Craft Brew Alliance in Portland, Ore., which recently released the aforementioned Redhook Long Hammer IPA and Longboard Lager in cans. And don’t forget Underdog Atlantic Lager from Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md.

There are a few holdouts, most notably Boston Beer Co., maker of the Sam Adams line. But the can has gained such acceptance that someday soon, maybe even Sam will get canned.

Technology of Canning:

The first beer cans were introduced in January 1935 in Richmond, Va. containing Krueger’s Cream Ale. They were made of steel and had a flat top that had to be punched through with  a heavy-duty can opener (dubbed a “church key”) to release the beer inside. The lightweight aluminum can we use today was introduced in 1958 by the Primo Brewing Co. in Hawaii, and the pull tab first appeared on a can of Iron City beer in 1962.

Pull tabs, when discarded, could cut your feet or equally worrisome, they would be swallowed by wildlife. So in 1975, Falls City Brewing Co. in Lousville, Ky. debuted the first “stay-tab” that remained attached to the can. It seems like just yesterday, right?

New, improved beer cans are being released all the time. Coors Light was the first beer to be packaged in a “cold activated” or “thermochromatic” can, which changes color with the temperature. When the beer has been chilled to the ideal drinking temperature (between 40 and 44 degrees F), the mountains on the can turn blue.

More recently, the powerhouse MillerCoors has introduced Miller Original Draft and Miller Lite in new Punch Top Cans. These containers have a second opening in the top that when pushed in, is said to increase the air flow and reduce the “glug-glug-glugging” that typically accompanies the pouring of beer from a can and can be blamed for many a beer can induced burp.

How does an aluminum bottle with a twist-off, resealable cap sound to you? If you want to take a break from sipping, you just twist the cap back on to prevent the beer from going flat or from spilling. Sometimes, what’s old becomes new again. The “conetop” can was a metal bottle that was introduced by Schlitz in 1935 and was phased out in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Now, it’s made a comeback!

Oskar Blues, which pioneered craft beer in a can, recently became the first craft brewery to use this aluminum bottle container, for a Belgian-style pale ale dubbed Chaka. The beer was a collaboration with Sun King, a microbrewery in Indianapolis. Oskar Blues was releasing the beer only in its home market of Colorado, but if it scores a big hit, who knows what the future will bring?

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