Yet in the past several years the once-lowly can has been seeing its reputation grow in the craft-brewing community. Thanks in large part to new microcanning equipment, smaller brewers like Colorado’s Oskar Blues, Minnesota’s Surly Brewing, Oregon’s Caldera Brewing, and California’s 21st Amendment are able to enter the canned-beer business alongside mainstream brands like Budweiser and Miller.
Surly Brewing’s Furious Beer
Add one more: Just this past summer, New Belgium Brewing began canning its popular Fat Tire Amber Ale and selling it in 12-packs in limited markets across the western United States, in stores such as Fred Meyer and Whole Foods, with plans to expand.
“This really came out of our own lifestyles,” writes Greg Owsley, chief branding officer at New Belgium, on the brewery’s blog, the Tinkerer. “Now, I can finally take Fat Tire in the backpack, in the boat, all those places we felt a little guilty taking our bottles and treated them so preciously to make sure they didn’t break.”
New Belgium may be the biggest U.S. craft brewer to offer its beer in cans, but it’s Colorado brewpub Oskar Blues that’s credited as the pioneer in the microcanning trend: The company began canning its flagship Dale’s Pale Ale in 2002. Fans took notice, sales took off, and other brewers have since followed suit. According to Jennifer Hoover, marketing communications manager for the Ball Corporation—which manufactures aluminum cans for both majors and micros—the company’s customers now include “more than 30 craft brewers in the United States and 16 in Canada.”
A major impetus behind the recent microcanning trend is a change in canning technology, which for decades was geared toward large producers. The Buds and Millers of the world utilize massive industrial canning machinery and
Oskar Blues’ Gordon Ale, Old Chub, Ten Fidy, and Dale’s Pale Alepurchase blank aluminum cans by the billions every year, according to Hoover. The landscape changed, however, in 2001 when Canadian company Cask Brewing Systems began offering a manual, two-at-a-time canning system designed specifically for small brewers; Cask also worked out a deal with the Ball Corporation to make Cask’s cans available in smaller quantities (says Hoover: “The minimum order is generally 24 pallets per label or 196,056 12-ounce cans”). Oskar Blues was the first U.S. craft brewery to adopt Cask’s system—the Colorado brewer now offers several of its beers in cans, including Scottish ale Old Chub and even its monster Ten Fidy, a 10 percent ABV imperial stout—and as Hoover says, “the list continues to grow.”
Like screw tops on fine wine bottles, cans are deeply associated with a low-grade product. But as with wine, those associations are more myth than reality. In fact, the can is arguably better for the beer inside, which is fragile and easily damaged by exposure to heat, oxygen, and light. Dark brown glass bottles help with the light issue (and do a much better job than clear or green glass—take note, Corona and Heineken fans), but a can seals the deal more completely. That skunky association you have with canned beer? Most likely the package is not to blame.