The bottles of Leinenkugel rattled in the back of the Jeep over the South Dakota badlands. Never mind that we weren’t supposed to have beer in the national park; we were not supposed to be in this section of the national park. There was enough beer in the back to last five of us all night, but by the time we reached our illegal camp site, several bottles had broken and had not proved to be ideal booze vessels for off-roading. We lost the bottle opener around the fire and clumsily used boulders to pop the caps. We rattled back out in the morning with all the clanking empties, sounding like the conspicuous trespassers we were.
But on a lazy river tubing trip on the Brandywine last summer, we filled an inner tube with cans of PBR that floated conveniently downstream with us. We tossed the cans–which stayed cold–from tube to tube and they landed with nice little plops into our sleepy laps. If we missed, we’d let them make their own way to us, rolling safely over rocks in the shallow water. An American flag trailed behind my tube alongside skimmers as I drunkenly popped the tops. It was all very patriotic. We crushed the lot of them into the empty spaces in our tubes and later threw them into the trunk to be recycled. The cans proved to be great river companions. Imagine if those cans had been filled with actual beer. Now, good beer in a can has spread like brushfire since the pioneers at Oskar Blues brought us Dale’s Pale Ale back in 2002. “The Ball Corporation got us off the ground when we were a 500 barrel brewpub. They catered to us as the small redheaded stepchild,” says Chad Melis, president of marketing at Oskar Blues.
“Once we ourselves stopped laughing, we realized there were some advantages to it, and that everyone’s perception of bad beer in a can was just that–a perception,” he says. The advantages, in addition to actually keeping the beer fresher (light-blocking aluminum and a full seal that prevents oxidation), included the outdoor lifestyle which cans cater to and which is so prevalent in Lyons, CO, where Oskar Blues was born. Approaching the ten year anniversary of their successful draft and can-only brewery, it’s obvious that everyone else stopped laughing a long time ago, too. Canned craft is not only here to stay, it’s constantly embraced, marketed, and revolutionized. We’ve learned a lot about the “keglet” over the last ten years. Because cans don’t break, are light and portable, and can be crushed, they’ve taken off with hikers, campers and lazy river tubers.
“I’m an avid snowboarder and I’ve broken plenty of bottles in my backpack,” says Brian Grossman, co-manager of Sierra Nevada. It’s obvious he understands my badlands bottle mishap, from the looks of Sierra Nevada’s “Where CAN You Go” initiative, which asks for friends and consumers to send pictures of their outdoor adventures, usually featuring someone holding a can of Torpedo or Pale Ale in one hand and an oar in the other. With this, Grossman points out that a major part of the out-doorsy appeal of cans is the mobile social aspect (drinking alone in a patch of woods would constitute as hermitism). The party can go on the beach, where glass is banned; it can go to a cabin 20 miles down a trail or over a double black diamond. “There’s something really special about sharing those experiences with a group. That vibe that comes from around the campfire… what we’re trying to do is take that feeling and that smile–that’s what the beer is about. It all comes together,” Melis says of the Oskar Blues can philosophy. But it’s not just the convenience and party-on-wheels that make cans sexy to the outdoor enthusiast (excluding that inconvenient park which forbids the happy act of drinking). It’s the fact that cans are actually more environmentally beneficial than bottles. “We hope our consumers are on a higher thought level…and for that reason we think that they choose, like, and appreciate the sustainability aspect,” Grossman says of Sierra Nevada drinkers. Unlike glass–75% of which nationwide ends in landfills–aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable and ultimately help to reduce our huge carbon footprint. A lot of breweries are also using the new PakTech six-pack handle, instead of the old duck noose, because it’s made of a high-density material that’s universally recyclable (the handle even helps to cover and protect the cans on their long journey to your mouth). Fair enough. But as environmental consciousness has become trendy in the last several years, we’ve obsessed as a society over being perceived as green, and are not always concerned with what is actu-ally sustainable. Certain hip corporations picked up on it and started making couture bags out of wheatgrass that read, “This is not a plas-tic bag” hemp-stitched by little Malaysian children; saving the earth is sexy. However; cans, in all their recyclable aluminum and energy-efficient glory, go farther than bottles, and are a legitimately more worthwhile packaging route. They are the solid choice for people who really care about not carbon shitting all over the planet. You also look really green when holding a can of good beer. While the environmental benefits of cans stretch universally, not every brewery caters to the outdoorsy snowboarder–if the can is really going to continue to rise, it has to be more versatile than that. As Chad Melis says, “We’re going to have to remain nimble.” Flying Dog, for instance, is making the can their own. The Frederick, MD brewery is known for their underground gonzo philosophy and tendency to sway on the side of anti-estab-lishment (in light of a history with Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman). The brand caters to a beer drinker who is not necessarily a forest dweller or rock climber. PR manager Erin Biles elaborates, “There’s something inherent about the package of the can that goes with the outdoor enthusiast. But I think that’s a neat thing…we have a conversion with the craft beer enthusiast and the gonzo scene.
People can bring the beer to concerts and festivals.” Or shows in abandoned factories or depraved Kentucky derbies…the can of beer becomes an integral part of the scene, no matter what it is or who the people are. And that probably has a lot to do with how it’s marketed. Flying Dog just released their first canned beer in April 2012; UnderDog, a light, sessionable Atlantic Lager, which is only available in Frederick right now. Biles points to the risks of any new venture when she explains that, as their first canning project, they wanted to wade in slowly and so they bottled UnderDog in addition to canning it. But don’t look for it in Philly too soon. “Next is Baltimore and then the entire state of Maryland, DC, and Northern Virginia…we’re being cautious on how we roll these out. Our main focus is keeping our backyard stocked with cans,” Biles says. Hopefully, as the goal is with all breweries new to canning, that backyard will expand. The slow accumulation of inventory is also a result of Flying Dog’s brilliantly diverted bottling line, which feeds into a can filler during the second night shift. Though a little sluggish, it’s a setup that really seems to be working.
For the littlest guy with zero packaging facilities, a new Mobile Canning startup makes the trendy arm of business suddenly possible. Pat Hartman and Ron Popma launched their company in 2011 near Lyons, after Hartman discussed mobile bottling (popular with wineries) at the UC Davis Brewing School. At the time, no one else was doing it with cans and, as of now, Hartman is aware of only one other company in San Francisco. Last year, Hartman and Popma put their automated canning line in a box truck and started taking it around Colorado. They’re essentially subcontractors, offering a cost benefit to small breweries that then don’t have to put up the capital for a canning line. “Originally, the idea was that it would be for the ultra-small brewery,” Hartman says. They’re now serving small to medium-sized brewers. “We always say, ‘don’t put your money into packaging. Put it into fermentation and making quality beer.’” They take care of the rest. The company has been flourishing, even helping to can Boulder Beer Hazed and Infused over spring 2012. “Boulder was using their own manual hand canning system, and they weren’t able to produce the volume that was being requested. Hand canning is very operator intensive,” Hartman says. He and Popma have also worked with Crabtree, Revolution (in Colorado), Bonfire, and others. Right now they’re seeing about 100 cases per order, on a per day basis.
“We’re finalizing a lot of our operating procedures and are really focused on Colorado, but who knows where it will take us,” he says. Importantly, Hartman notes the elusive experience of canned craft. “A brewery might have a higher gravity beer with a nice cork and cage, and the experience is about the presentation. Canning at 12 or 16 ounces is a different beer drinking experience,” he says. I call this perception elusive because it’s morphed so much, and continues to morph, and that “experience” can be any number of things. Why should it be the general perception that the high gravity beers are only fit to be poured from a glass bottle at a fine oak table? “It works on a trailside or it works on a white table cloth dinner. You can pour it into a glass, but either way the can has still kept it fresher,” Melis says of the Oskar brews. And it’s no secret that they put boozy, malty beer in a can; Old Chub weighs in at 8%, challenging the idea that bigger beers require a bottled presentation. Several decades ago–when the can was actually the norm, along with bad beer–points to one of the main reasons we love the experience of cans. They’re nostalgic. God, we love nostalgia. Over the course of the can’s early development–from the linings made of tar-like material, vinylite (the same polymer used to make records), resins, gums and sprayed asphalts–we eventually reached a suitable drinking vessel that also represented a kind of Americana: a simultaneous ingenuity and drunken joy. Pabst introduced its own can on July 4, 1935. Talk about a national drink.
“Their eyes are wide open when they taste [a can of Oskar Blues]. They say, I remember drinking Schlitz!” Caitlyn Bursack says of her older consumers here in Philadelphia. Who would’ve guessed that the pioneers would get to be surprised all over again? It’s very possible that the throwback to our Pabst-drinking ancestors is what made the PBR tallboy so hip; it’s no wonder that craft breweries are tapping into those sepia days as well. Churchkey Can Co., especially. The new Pacific Northwest brewery’s motto, “It’s Worth the Effort,” speaks to simpler times when church keys were used to punch out triangular drinking holes. The fully-recyclable, all-steel can is a modern recreation of the original from the 1930s, boasting the kind of flat top that we usually only see on tuna cans. To make it happen, Churchkey turned to the Ball Corporation, the can supplier giant. They brew one beer: a 4.9 percent pilsner. Obviously, co-founders (former Nike designer) Justin Hawkins and (Entourage star) Adrian Grenier have one thing in mind, and that is a black and white photo of a classic and forgotten experience. But if the beer is good, this kind of sentimental (and even more recyclable) philosophy could be right on the mark. The only downfall would be the need to always have a church key nearby–luckily one is included in each six pack.
So beer in a can, we’ve established, is understandably exploding because it has everything. Full blown events have even cropped up to specifically celebrate the can, including the second Burning Can festival in Lyons and the Ameri “CAN” party in Scottsdale, AZ. It seems that “bad perception” has once and for all been put to sleep, and the movement can only go upward from here. Brewers like Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues will be working on new can developments, partnering with Ball and other companies. “I personally don’t see any downside to the can,” Melis says. “We’ll just continue to push the envelope.” “Can we make it bottomless?” Bursack adds. She raises a good point. “It just makes sense. It’s better for the beer, the environment, and the beer drinker,” Melis asserts of where we stand in the long-time-brewing craft can revolution.