Nice Cans! How the Aluminum Can Is Making a Triumphant Return to Respectable Society

Feature by | Jan 2007 | Issue #1

Set design by Bean Gilsdorf | Photo by Martin Thiel.

Ordering a can of beer has always been trouble. Call for one and you run the risk of being identified as an unsophisticated ignoramus and subjected to ridicule at the hands of even the most open-minded beer geeks. And for a time, it was for good reason. Your father’s beer can, after all, had a way of imparting an unsettling metallic flavor into the suds. The effect even had a name—“metal turbidity”—which sounds as bad as it tastes.

But now that’s all started to change. Craft brewers are returning to the once-hated can in increasing numbers for their big, hoppy beers. It’s been four years since the first beer was hand-canned, and there are now almost thirty small microbreweries in America, canning their beers. As this paradigm continues to shift in a major way, it’s reasonable to ask a few questions: Why now? Why cans? And more importantly, are these people nuts?

Beer cans have been around for about seventy years, having been patented by the American Can Company in 1934. Cans, of course, have been around since the time of Napoleon, but beer had a way of leeching the metal out of cans, so brewers steered clear. The problem was solved, to some degree, with the invention of a plastic called Vinylite, which was adapted for beer cans and trademarked as Keglined. Even so, it took the inventors over a year to persuade any brewery to try putting their beer in cans.

On January 24, 1935, a New Jersey brewery, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co., put their Krueger Cream Ale in a can and test marketed it as far from home as they could, in Richmond, Virginia. To their surprise, during the first month almost all of their distributors started carrying it, and within a couple of months they had eaten into the sales of the three biggest national brewers, Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and Schlitz. By June, Krueger’s sales were up an astonishing 550 percent. By September, Schlitz had their own unique beer can, and the others quickly followed suit.

Glass companies didn’t take this development lying down, and a debate raged over whether bottles or cans were the better package. Incidentally, it was this fight that led to the “stubby” bottle, the first throwaway bottle, the size of which was designed to mirror that of beer cans. By World War II, 10 percent of beer sold was in a can, but war rationing put a temporary stop to it. After the war, the boom years saw sales of beer cans explode, especially after Coors introduced the first all-aluminum can in 1959. By the end of the ’60s, cans were outselling bottles as the package of choice. The can peaked in 1991, when they counted for over two-thirds of packaged beer sold. Today, that figure has dropped to about half.

Whatever the claims of the bottle lobby, improvements to the internal coatings pioneered in the ’80s have erased any perceived metallic flavors in the can. The standardized organic polymer used inside today’s beer cans—a water-based epoxy acrylic—offer complete protection from the aluminum. But back then, canning lines, like bottling lines, were still prohibitively expensive for all but a few breweries. Even if some smaller firms wanted to put their beer in cans, they would have to contract brew them at a big brewery. In fact, in the late ’90s, Portland Brewing did just that when they began putting their MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale in cans at the request of Alaskan Airlines.

Enter Kersten Kloss of Cask Brewing Systems of Canada, who, like much of the rest of the brewing industry, was feeling the pinch of declining sales at the end of the ’90s. He surveyed brewers in his country, hoping to figure out where they were heading. To his surprise, he found that cans were doing remarkably well at those breweries fortunate enough to be able to afford their own canning lines, like Big Rock and Sleeman’s. So Kloss gathered the company’s engineers and came up with an affordable manual canning line that most breweries could afford. Then he convinced the Ball Corporation, a company that makes the actual cans, to drop the minimum order so small brewers didn’t have to order enough cans to fill a stadium in order to get onboard.

All he had to do next, like the first beer can makers seventy years before, was persuade someone to be his guinea pig. So Cask began showing their new system at trade shows and sending out packages to prospective small brewers. Dale Katechis, of the tiny Oskar Blues Brewery in (even tinier) Lyons, Colorado, remembers the day he looked over Cask’s canning literature. “We just laughed and laughed. The idea was hysterical. We thought, ‘No way can this be done.’”

But the more Katechis looked at the facts, the more they seemed to belie the accepted industry wisdom. It was looking more and more like a dynamite idea. He asked his friend, consummate salesman Marty Jones, what he thought. Jones loved it. The pair felt like they could do some- thing no one else had done. As Katechis reminisces about the decision today, he says he feels like he stepped off a cliff. “We knew people thought we were crazy, but to me, it epitomizes what brought me to make beer in the first place, which was to have fun. Innovation like this may be the soul of the industry, but I’m still having fun.”

The year before they started canning in 2002, Oskar Blues made 760 barrels of beer. While there was some initial resistance, the pair methodically broke through the aversion. They tasted people on Dale’s Pale Ale, and little by little folks realized the beer tasted good. They introduced a second style, Old Chub, a strong Scottish Ale. Then they started winning awards and plaudits. The New York Times picked Dale’s as the best among a group of 25 Pale Ales. By 2005, Oskar Blues had increased to 5,000 barrels and became the biggest brewpub in America by a wide margin, despite being located in a town of 1,700 residents.

People finally started taking them—and cans—seriously. Many other brewers started asking them about making cans. Katechis was only too happy to show them the way. Oskar Blues became a beacon, a model for breweries looking to do something different. Over the next couple of years, the ranks of microbreweries making cans swelled to two dozen from all around the country.

Shaun O’Sullivan is the co-owner of the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco. O’Sullivan visited Katechis in late 2005 and was immediately struck by the simplicity and sophistication of his set-up. “It was an epiphany. I became a believer on the spot,” O’Sullivan says. It seemed the ideal solution for his operation. 21st Amendment debuted two of their most popular styles in cans—Watermelon Wheat and IPA—in early May of 2006. Demand has been so great that they’re actively looking for a separate location where they can just make canned beer.

Another convert, Caldera Brewing in Ashland, Oregon, started canning their Pale Ale in May of 2005. The demand was so high that this past July they upgraded to Cask’s automated microcanning line, and will introduce their canned IPA in early spring. When they entered the World Beer Cup competition earlier this year, owner Jim Mills put their beer in plain silver cans. Caldera won two medals, most impressively a gold in the unfiltered beer-style category for their Pilsener Bier, beating out two well-known German breweries. Mills remembers what he was thinking when he found out he’d won. “We’ve been doing this for nine years, [the Germans] have been making beer for hundreds of years. It was amazing!”

One of the latest breweries to put their beer in cans is Surly Brewing, located north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. When Omar Ansari and Todd Haug opened their brewery this February, Haug, a former brewer at Rock Bottom in Chicago, told his business partner, “One of these days, I’m going to put our beer in cans.” Ansari initially laughed (notice a pattern here?), but Haug kept suggesting it. Then Ansari looked closer at the technical specs and saw, for example, that the reports on O2 levels looked very good. He wasn’t quite convinced, but then Haug’s wife said casually that they should put their beer in tall boy cans.

“When she said that, something just clicked,” Ansari says. “People don’t think of Guinness or Boddington’s as canned beer—they think of it as good beer in a can.” So in late October, Surly debuted 16-ounce cans of two of their beers, Furious (a 100 IBU IPA) and Bender (an Oatmeal Brown Porter Stout).

Today, Surly is one of almost thirty microcanners in twenty-one states. There are also over a dozen in Canada, and nearly twenty others around the world, on every populated continent except Africa. Indeed, beer in cans appears to be returning with a vengeance, proving that there are myriad good reasons to can beer in the 21st century (see sidebar). The technological hurdles have all been surmounted. The only thing keeping craft beer in cans from going mainstream is prejudice. It’s that tiny voice inside your head repeating the mantra, “Cans are bad, cans are gross.” And while many beer geeks will still scoff at the can, mavericks like Dale Katechis and Marty Jones will keep fighting for the cause.

“We had a hunch all along that there are people who drink canned beer because they like the can, though not necessarily the beer,” Katechis says. “They like the idea of the can being retro and against the grain. What we’ve done is put great beer in there and taken the shame out of buying beer in cans. Now a beer lover can walk into the store and buy a big, flavorful beer in a can and hold his head up high. Drinking PBR may make you feel punk rock, but drinking Dale’s really is. And that’s good for us, and it’s good for craft beer.”

Can Advantages
Opaque: Cans keep out 100 percent of UV light, so the beer won’t get lightstruck and skunk.
Less O2: Lower oxygen levels means less oxidation (which makes beer taste like cardboard), and gives it a longer shelf life.
Chills Faster: Cans take less time to get cool enough to drink.
Safer: Unlike bottles, cans won’t break when you’re hit by them …
Environmentally Friendly: Cans are easier to recycle than bottles, and 51 percent of alumi- num can be reused, as opposed
to only 22 percent of glass. Plus, less energy is used in the recycling process.
Acceptability: Cans are accept- able at lots of places where bottles are not permitted, like airplanes, beaches, golf courses, stadiums, concerts, swimming pools and marinas.