Craft Brewers Turn to Cans

Once Dale's Pale Ale came out in cans, production and sales soared.
Once Dale's Pale Ale came out in cans, production and sales soared. (By Erin Glass)
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Next month, the Blue Mountain Brewery in rural Nelson County will become the first Virginia microbrewery to can its beer. Using a hand-operated filler and seamer, owner Taylor Smack will package his Full Nelson Pale Ale in 12-ounce aluminum cylinders -- at a laborious 20 cases per hour -- and ship it to better beer outlets around the commonwealth.

Smack says he hopes Virginians will give it the same rousing reception they gave Krueger's Cream Ale back in January 1935.

The beer can is nearing its 75th birthday. It all started in Richmond, where the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co. of Newark, N.J., test-marketed the first commercially available canned beer to jump-start sales after the end of Prohibition.

The early, bulky, stainless-steel cans had to be punched open with a heavy-duty utensil, yet the public embraced them eagerly; the use of a tab top and lighter-weight aluminum lay decades in the future. Krueger disappeared into history, but American beer drinkers adopted the can as their favorite container, last year popping open more than 30 billion cold ones, most of them filled with pale light lagers from the large national brewers.

Now, smaller brewers such as Smack are dramatically increasing the range of styles available in aluminum, challenging the stigma of canned beer.

"People say, 'What about the metallic taste?' But that problem was solved years ago," Smack says, noting that cans are lined with an epoxy-based resin. He enumerates the advantages: Cans are opaque, so there's no need to worry about skunky, light-struck beer. They're lighter and more compact than bottles, making them a convenient tote for bikers, backpackers and the beach crowd. They ice down faster than glass. And consumers are more likely to recycle cans.

"I'm a huge believer that this will be a big medium for craft brewing," he says.

But better beer in cans is still relatively rare. Of the 446 microbreweries and 990 brew pubs known to be operating in the United States, only about 40 can their beer. Most use equipment from Cask Brewing Systems, a Canadian company that leveled the playing field by offering portable canning lines at prices even the smallest brewery could afford.

The best local venue for sampling microbrews in cans is the Red Derby, a comfortable neighborhood dive in Columbia Heights. The chalkboard lists 29 brands, all in cans. (The bar doesn't stock bottles or kegs.)

You can play it safe with a $2 Natty Boh, or fork over twice that amount for any of four brands from Butternuts Beer & Ale of Garrattsville, N.Y. The four-year-old microbrewery, housed in an abandoned dairy 25 miles west of Cooperstown, sidestepped bottling entirely to go directly to cans. "We wanted to offer something different from the competition," says owner-brewer Charles Williamson.

His lineup of "farmhouse ales" includes Heinnieweisse, a German-style wheat beer with a light clove/bubble-gum favor, and the roasty, ebony-colored Moo Thunder Stout.

The Red Derby also serves Mama's Little Yella Pils, the latest offering from Oskar Blues, a Colorado brew pub that in 2002 became the first U.S. microbrewery to invest in a canning line. The pils is a quaffable summertime thirst quencher with a peppery hop character.

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