Year of the Can
Jac LeMonte

Craft breweries nationwide — from such giants as Sierra Nevada Brewing to mere
upstarts  — have been embracing aluminum. Some of them, such as Florida-based
Cigar City Brewing, are among the most highly regarded breweries in the country. In
certain circles, 2011 might be remembered as the Year of the Can.  

Canned craft beer has been around since 2002, when Colorado’s Oskar Blues
Brewery began canning its flagship Dale’s Pale Ale, but it didn’t take off until recently.
In 2009, about 50 craft breweries, mostly small ones, packaged beer in cans; now
there are close to 150, and they aren’t all small. By the end of 2012, at least half of
the 25 largest U.S. craft breweries will be selling canned beer, twice as many as this
year. Even Boston Beer, maker of Samuel Adams, is working with several
manufacturers to develop cans for its products, according to its president, Jim Koch,
who used to be firmly in the anti-can camp.

So what accounts for the mainstreaming of what Oskar Blues once dubbed the
Canned Beer Apocalypse? For one thing, cans help beer stay fresh by blocking light,
which can turn it skunky, and by keeping out oxygen better than many bottles do.
Made from recycled materials and easy to recycle, they also appeal to sustainability-
oriented breweries, and they’re more portable than glass, which helps explain why
they’ve caught on in outdoor-activity Meccas such as the Rockies.

In addition, although the decision to can comes with steep up-front costs — for
special equipment and bulk can orders — brewers save money in the long run. First,
bottling line would take up much more warehouse space, whereas a canning line has
a very small footprint.  Second, shipping is cheaper, too, because cans are lighter
than glass.

Still, cans aren’t perfect. Their plastic linings, like those of most other food and
beverage cans, usually contain Bisphenol A, a chemical that has been linked to
endocrine and reproductive problems, and the linings sometimes break down over
time, which can put beer in contact with metal, imparting off flavors. “They’re not
really ideal for beer that people are going to want to age,” says Joey Redner, owner
of Cigar City Brewing, which will continue to use bottles for its limited releases.

Even if attitudes toward cans are changing, many people don’t like the idea of craft
beer cozying into containers whose cultural status has long been defined by Bud,
beans and Spam. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s Sam Calagione, for example, says
his focus has been to elevate beer to the level of wine, a mission best served by
gravitating toward 750-milliliter bottles, not 12-ounce aluminum tubes.

For Boston Beer’s Koch, the main problem with cans is how they affect beer’s taste.
Although many brewers disagree with him, he believes that tiny tears in can linings
frequently lead to metallic notes and that the plastic linings suck up delicate hop
aromas. “The cans tend to absorb the floral character of the hop and, to me, dumb
the hop down,” he says. In developing cans for Samuel Adams, he adds, he hopes to
create thicker, denser linings that address those problems.

Nonetheless, one thing is indisputable: Plenty of good beer comes in cans, as
evidenced by the fact that can-using breweries took home an impressive array of
medals at this fall’s Great American Beer Festival.  

American Can Co. began experimenting with canned beer in 1931, as it anticipated
the end of Prohibition. Krueger’s Special Beer was the first commercially packaged
beer in a can.  The very first canned beer was sold in Richmond, Virginia in 1935.
Early on, manufacturers were mostly concerned with creating a beer can that could
hold up to the heat and pressure of the pasteurization process without bursting or
later leaking on the store shelves. Style and branding were considered, but were not
a top priority in the beginning. Pabst was the first major brewer to offer beer in a can.

The earliest can designs were flat tops and consumers were on their own when it
came to opening them.   With the introduction of conetop cans the six pack was born
in 1938. By 1960, the last conetop beer cans were produced and manufacturers tried
using an aluminum top on steel cans to make them easier to open.  In 1962, the first
pull-tab beer hit the market, in 1965 ring-top cans were introduced and in 1974 a
short-lived push-button beer can was used on some brands.  Most canned beers
now use the pull-tab packaging.

So there you have it.  It's been a long time coming but we've finally made it to the
year of the can! - SPECIAL REPORT
beer in cans