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Beer in cans: It’s not just for Bud anymore

By Daniel Fromson,

You could almost see the woman wince. The smiling, pink-faced man at the beer store had just recommended a craft beer sold in a can. “I’m going to a dinner party,” she said. Couldn’t he suggest something bottled?

I restrained myself from interrupting, but here’s what I wanted to say: You’re going to have to get used to this. In fact, we all are. Almost conspiratorially, craft breweries nationwide — from such giants as Sierra Nevada Brewing to upstarts like the District’s own DC Brau — 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. Locally, DC Brau and Virginia’s Starr Hill Brewery will be joined by Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery, which will launch a canned pale ale, Underdog.

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. “There will come a day,” he says, “when I will feel comfortable putting Sam Adams in a can.”

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. “A bottling line would take up almost half of our warehouse, whereas a canning line has a very small footprint,” says DC Brau’s chief officer, Brandon Skall. 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 such as Oskar Blues, Indiana’s Sun King Brewing and San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery, among others, took home an impressive array of medals at this fall’s Great American Beer Festival. And luckily for Washington area residents, an impressive array of rock-solid canned beers is available right here.

Alongside standards such as bold and malty Dale’s Pale Ale (and, in the District, DC Brau’s strikingly similar the Public) are strong offerings from such rising stars as Sixpoint Craft Ales. (Try the Crisp, a slightly fruity lager, or Diesel, a hoppy but drinkable stout, both in 16-ounce cans.) 21st Amendment can’t seem to make a bad beer, with the exception of its what-were-they-thinking Hell or High Watermelon Wheat — counterbalanced, thankfully, by special releases including Allies Win the War!, a chestnut-brown strong ale. Also worth seeking out are floral, refreshing brews from Oregon’s often-overlooked Caldera Brewing.

If you can stomach the price tag, the best cans available nearby with any regularity might be those from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing, which are often sold for about $6 per 16 ounces at Connecticut Avenue Wine & Liquor in Dupont Circle. Of course, if you’re into craft beer, you’ve probably paid about twice as much for big bottles that weren’t twice as large.

It’s good enough to be served at a dinner party. Remember: We’re going to have to get used to this.

Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @dfroms.

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