Article By: Lew Bryson
If there is an icon of mainstream beer, a thing that symbolizes the kind of beer that craft beer drinkers love to hate, it is the can. Beer cans are practically synonymous with American light lager beers, despite the popularity of imported nitrocans filled with Guinness, Abbot and other beers. "Tastes like metal," you'll hear the geeks say of beers from cans - and to be fair, you can hear that from some mainstream drinkers, too.
News flash Craft beer in cans is coming to a wholesaler near you.
There are some out there already. Brooklyn Lager has been in cans for almost three years, although it's more a concession sale item: stadiums, golf courses, trains, planes, etc. There were some brewers in the Midwest who had their beer put up in cans by larger brewers, shipping the beer by tank truck and then picking up the cans when they were done. Portland Brewing put their MacTarnahan's beer in cans, but like Brooklyn, they were mostly looking at the recreation and concession market; you don't see these beers on supermarket shelves.
That's where the breakthrough is going to happen soon, and it's largely being driven by the success of one brewery: Oskar Blues Brewery, in Lyons, Colorado. A couple months ago, I mentioned a seminar on packaging for the brewpub at this year's Craft Brewers Conference that was presented by Oskar Blues owner Dale Katechis. Katechis talked about how Oskar Blues got into the canning business.
"We got a brochure in the mail from Cask Brewing Systems, a company in Calgary," said Katechis. "They had a small canning machine and six-pack assembler they were selling to small breweries. I laughed at it. Then I thought I'd show it to Brian (Lutz), our brewer, for a laugh. The whole idea made us laugh really hard. It seemed funny to put a 65 IBU pale ale in cans."
"Then it wasn't funny any more," he said, as he described the 'light-bulb moment' that hit him. "We were already bottling in 22oz. bomber bottles, and they had a cult following. Cans would expand that reach, and get more people to our door. We could send the brewer out the door to sell them, which is a good way for him to get out of that tunnel vision thing: making the same beer, every week. We stopped laughing and called Cask Systems."
Kersten Kloss is the western sales manager for Cask Brewing Systems. "In the 198Os we were in the forefront of craft brewing," he said. "We set up brewpubs and breweries all over Canada." Cask was also servicing the Do-It-Yourself, or "U-Brew" brewing business in Canada, known generally as Brew On Premise in the US: places where people could come and brew their own small batches of beer on solid purpose-built equipment and bottle it for take-home consumption.
That's where they started with small canning machine technology. "We were serving a small market of specialty packages, the U-Brews," Kloss said. "That market needed a better package than people bringing in their bottles to re-use, and we developed a manual can filler for them. That's how we proved our ability to sell to a niche market to the Ball Corporation, our can supplier. They had tried to introduce canning technology to the micro market 1O years ago, and it failed. The machinery started at a quarter-million dollars, and the minimum order was millions of cans."
Cask's initial manual canning system is almost bedrock simple. "It's a 2-head manual filler," Kloss began. "You load the cans on the filler two at a time. Then the filler blows a little carbon dioxide in the can, fills it with beer, and applies the lid on the foam. Then you put the can on the seamer. The can is put on a rotating chuck, and that's where the lid is rolled on and compressed. It's formed on the seamer. That's one of the nice things about cans: where bottles' crimped crowns don't insure against air leakages over time, the can seal is hermetic, it's one unit, there's no air leakage. You don't have light, you don't have air, you don't have breakage."
The third and final step is to put the cans in the six-pack rings. "The six-packer is a miniature manual "hi-cone" machine," said Kloss. "That's what they're called in the industry, hi-cone machines. It's a three-step process: you load the cans on the packer, pull the lever and six plastic cones drop onto the can tops. The operator puts the plastic six-pack rings on the cones. Pull the lever again and the plastic rings are pressed and stretched down over the cans, and the cones are pulled out of the way."
"While we were working with the U-Brews, we were approached by several small brewers in Canada," Kloss said. "They were interested in canning, and once we'd made some adjustments to air levels and automated the process a bit more, it worked great. We went to Ball about introducing that to the US market, and they were all for it." That's when they sent out the brochures that landed on Katechis's desk.
Dale Katechis became one of the most popular interviews in the craft brewing trade press. Dale's Pale Ale in cans was a quick hit, boosting sales by an unbelievable 5OO% in the first year. It was followed by a second successful release, Old Chub, an even more outrageous beer to find in a can: an 8% malty Scottish ale. The beers were soon found across the country, coming in through various supply lines, some authorized and some not. I got hold of some in Virginia, and was blown away by the quality and punch of the beers. They were solid craft brews, worthy of attention in any package.
Which made me wonder: wasn't Dale's first thought right? Isn't it really just a gimmick to put beers like these in cans? "A gimmick is something that doesn't hold any water," Katechis replied. "The thing has to have value. You have to want to re-purchase. That's the different between a gimmick and an innovation. We want the people who love that type of beer to buy this. I'm not trying to pull away the Lite drinker, they'll hate this beer. That's not my market. I've got to sell this to an educated palate. I think those people are educated enough that you won't sell them a gimmick. They'll buy it again if it hits home with them. It's a 65 IBU beer in a can. It's not a joke!"
Some local brewers agree. New England Brewing is out in cans and on the shelves already. This pioneering Connecticut brewery has been resurrected; and in a common example of the "brewery DNA" that has provided this fledgling industry with a real and interesting history, owner Rob Leonard has also resurrected the Elm City label from the defunct New Haven Brewing. It makes some sense: Leonard used to brew there. New England Brewing has two beers in cans: Atlantic Amber and Elm City Lager.
Why cans? "Because we can!" Leonard says, puckishly. New England uses the same 2-head Cask Systems manual filler that Oskar Blues started out with. Leonard sees the low output as a plus: it guarantees that there isn't too much beer on the market, which means the canned beer is fresh. He loves the protection the can gives against light damage. "The can blocks out all light," he said, "and aeration levels are much lower than bottles. The result: longer shelf life and fresher product."
I did see two Massachusetts brewers at Katechis's seminar: John Fahimian, owner of The Tap brewpub in Haverhill, and Todd Marcus of Cape Cod Beer. Fahimian was more interested in the idea of packaging his beer in more conventional forms; he'd just ordered a 22oz. bottle filler. But he had an open mind. "Bottling or canning would be a great marketing tool to get our place better known," he said. "I want to sell more beer, too. We have a lot of brewing capacity, and we're only 3O miles from Boston, but no one comes up."
Marcus, on the other hand, saw Cape Cod as a natural for canned craft beer. "I want to package our beer," he said, "and cans would be great. There's water all around us, it's perfect. The technology's less of an issue now, it's all been done. There are a lot of marketing considerations: 4-packs, 6-packs, 12-packs, and all at completely different pricepoints. And at a 15O,OOO minimum print run on the cans, you've got to make a solid decision on what to can."
Cans make a lot of sense for the craft brewer, in a lot of different ways. As Leonard points out, they are completely proof against beer being light-damaged, the sole cause of 'skunkiness' in beer. With equivalent filler equipment, cans are the equal of bottles when it comes to low airs in the package, which keeps the beer from becoming stale. Cans are lighter to carry, much lighter to ship and deliver, and are much less prone to breakage. And they take less energy to recycle than glass.
Katechis agrees. "Mainstream micro drinkers are used to getting their beers in glass," he said. "But the canned beer is a fresher, better way to get beer to the consumer. We purge the cans (with carbon dioxide): when the lid goes on, there's nothing but beer in there. The can has an enamel lining, a water-based lining from the Ball Corporation. The beer doesn't sit on aluminum. The only part that could get oxidized is the outside of the lid."
What's that all mean to the consumer? Cans with craft beer in them represent a package that's lighter to carry, that eliminates the possibility of skunking, that doesn't go stale as fast, and that can go places where glass bottles cannot, all at a similar price - or lower. The can is the least expensive individual package option for beer. What's not to like?
The Europeans caught on a long time ago. I just got back from a trip to the Czech Republic. Every major beer was available in 5OOml and 33Oml cans, and often only in cans. It's the preferred package, after draft. The Belgian beer Wittekirke is available in cans, even the vaunted Rodenbach, one of the most assertive and unusual beers in the world, is in cans, something that blows most beer geeks' minds.
But do these beers really taste good out of a can? Yes, of course they do. Cans today are not what they were 3O years ago. They're light aluminum, and as Katechis pointed out, they're lined with a flavorless, harmless lining. Pop the tab, and the beer's ready for drinking, but Katechis doesn't advise drinking it straight from the can. "How many people buy a Belgian tripel and drink it from the bottle?" he asked. "I mean, if you want to drink a tripel out of the can, go for it. But pour it in a glass and you'll get a fresher beer."
If it's so darned great, why did it take so long? "I spent a lot of time thinking about why no one else did it," said Katechis. "The only reason micros didn't get into cans in the first place was that it was cost-prohibitive. You have to put up a lot of money for can inventory. The can companies weren't doing small lots." Cask Brewing System changed all that, just like Briess Malts changed the way malt was sold to microbrewers back in the 198Os.
When I talked to Katechis, he was in the process of finishing off a new 5OOO square foot facility, with a new 72 head filler - a can filler, of course. "At the size we're at now, we'd have to run that about 15 minutes a year," he said with a laugh. "But we're able to finance it with the brewpub." That neatly proved his point about extending the brewpub's reach with cans.
"We could be on the verge of something big," said Katechis. "We weren't looking at a big home run, we were just intrigued, we were challenged. But it turned into wildfire. Within two months of thinking about it, we had a canned beer. That got us out in the market, and we're seeing a lot of pull-through. It's more portable, it's environmentally friendly. A big part of doing it was just to see what people thought. We know what they think now. We have an airline contract with Frontier, and we've moved into Arizona." Why is Arizona a big deal? Simple, says Katechis: it's the state with the most boaters per capita.
Craft beer in cans could be a hot seller in hot weather, but where do you put them to get the greatest movement? Do you put them with the bottled craft beers, or with the other beers in cans, which are mostly mainstream beers and a few imports, like Heineken? "We've been telling people to put them with the micros," Katechis said. "But it's an interesting question. Some folks have been trying to talk me into placing it with the imports. I want to be with the micros.
"We don't have the desire to be Budweiser," Katechis said. "We wanted to do something unique that shakes things up, that challenges the mainstream. We get a kick out of proving people wrong. It really is in the spirit of the micro industry. People say, "Why get involved if it's only 3% of the market?" Why else do it? That's how we choose to make our living. The canned beer fell right in with that. It was maverick and ground-breaking. It opened people's eyes to what the can could do.
"The can is the most popular package for beer," he said. "It makes sense. The only big dark secret is people's perception. Our job is to get out there and prove that this is better way to package beer. And it's kind of fun that you can smash one on your forehead when you're done." The can may be taking craft beer where it's never gone before.