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Call me a canned beer convert. As with many others, I grew up associating canned beer with mass-produced, flavor-challenged lagers. Valued mainly for their ability to be smashed on foreheads and differentiated only by whether you bought a six-pack or a case, these widgetized cans came to represent the monotony that was American beer in the days before the microbrewing revolution.
Fast-forward to today and the public perception of beer in a can is rapidly changing. Quickly becoming the packaging of choice, many new craft brewers are opting to forego bottling lines altogether in favor of canning operations. While writing my first book in 2005, I came across one of the earliest American craft brewers to use the new, smaller technology at the New England Brewing Company. There, co-owner Rob Leonard nervously waved toward the pallets stacked high with thousands of pre-printed cans he had to buy to run on his tiny canner. After filling the cans by hand, Leonard then floated the lids on top and the machine screwed them into place. The rate at which he filled them was a disturbingly slow two cans at a time. I certainly didn’t think I was witnessing the future in that Connecticut warehouse. With zero demand for beer in cans from craft consumers, it was a huge risk to take on an unestablished technology.
Since that day 10 years ago, craft cans have experienced incredible growth and no small amount of innovation. Moving from the early adopters, including of course Oskar Blues, craft cans slowly made inroads with consumers. An inherently better vessel for beer, cans provide excellent if not superior protection against all of the elements that destroy the noble beverage, including air and light. They are lighter than bottles, easier to ship, and offer consumers numerous additional opportunities for enjoyment, whether hiking, boating, or more discreetly sipping them at the beach. Best of all, you never have to root around for a bottle opener.
Getting past the previous and long-standing consumer association with macro lager was no easy task, though. I am honestly not even sure how that happened or whether it’s still underway. All I know is that craft cans are increasingly everywhere and you don’t hear many people speaking wistfully about a return to bottles.
Cans have also allowed craft brewers a new medium with which to visually entice consumers. Often wrapped in full-body labels, craft cans offer brewers the opportunity to design the container from top to bottom, instead of settling for spreading the story and message of the beer on only a tiny fraction of the packaging space.
And craft brewers have pushed beyond the antiquated notions of what it means to be a canned beer, busting out 16-, 19.2-, and even 32-ounce versions. These latter offerings, known as Crowlers, give bars and pubs the opportunity to let their customers take home freshly packaged beers to go without having to invest in glass growlers.
I admit to being initially skeptical of beer from craft breweries in cans, as the packaging felt like a step in the wrong direction for the industry. After a few years of sampling and review, however, I’m a full convert. Give me a hoppy wheat ale in a can at the beach and I couldn’t be happier. Cans are now instinctively what I reach for when I’m buying beer in the store, much to my own surprise. In fact, I expect to keep passing over glass bottles, bombers and growlers for many years to come. ■