We make the case for cans and what recent trends in beer canning mean for craft brewers everywhere.
It's no secret that craft beer is booming. Walk into any corner store, and you’re immediately confronted by a world-class selection representing a myriad of styles, flavors and origins - a true departure from the 30-racks of light lagers that previously filled those same shelves for decades.
Yet, if you look closely, many of these crowded craft coolers have more in common with their macro-brewed predecessors than you might think. A growing number of craft breweries swap traditional glass bottles for shiny aluminum cans, a growing trend in craft breer canning.
Long gone are the days when a can of beer actually meant fizzy, yellow and flavorless.
Today’s craft brewers are canning up everything from roasty Vanilla Bean Porters to hopped-up Imperial IPAs, motivated by a combination of consumer and industry-driven factors. Even craft beer’s relative giant, the ever-traditional Boston Beer Company, joined the rising tide of craft can converts in 2013 when it began selling its signature Sam Adams lager in cans.
According to Russ Phillips, the writer and beer expert behind CraftCans.com, the number of American craft breweries canning their beer grew from just 81 in 2010 to more than 500 in 2015, making one of the industry's hottest trends in craft beer canning official.
“I think craft canning will only continue to grow,” says Rob Pihl of Radiant Pig Craft Beers, a New York City-based contract brewery who released their first line of cans this summer. “There's not a whole lot of negatives about canning -- they're lighter, and they're much easier to recycle than glass, which is obviously better for the environment. I think there was a perception for a long time that canned beers were cheap, but once craft beer drinkers warmed up to the idea, it really opened up the whole market.”
Most can-devotees will agree that cans are much less sensitive to light and oxygen contamination, cool down much quicker than glass, are more easily produced from recycled materials and take up less space on truck beds and shipping containers - all of which allows established craft breweries to extend their reach without breaking the bank or drastically widening their carbon footprint.
Result? Better beer for the consumer and better business practices for the brewer - two plus sides that are undoubtedly contributing to this growing trend in craft beer canning.
“In a case of bottles, the top of the box is 24 bottlenecks and a bunch of air! It's completely inefficient and a waste of space,” remarks Heather McReynolds, Brewery Manager at Sixpoint, a national brand based in Brooklyn that’s been canning since they opened in 2004. “A case of cans, on the other hand, can be packed snugly and therefore, conserves space. For anyone who gets excited about packing things in an orderly fashion, cans are definitely the way to go.”
While it might seem like a clear case for the can revolution, the industry hasn’t always been so aluminum friendly.
Back in 2002, Dale Katechis of Colorado’s Oskar Blues had the bold idea to package his flagship hop bomb Dale’s Pale Ale in bright blue cans, and managed to cobble together a primitive canning plant in a rickety barn adjacent to his fledgling Lyons brewpub. Back in those days, the team painstakingly canned each beer by hand using a table-top machine. And while they obviously believed wholeheartedly in their cause, the rest of the world wasn’t quite ready to jump on board.
“At that time, Oskar Blues' philosophy was, ‘We're the first craft beer in a can, and we need to get everyone in front of this’,” recalls Meg Gill, co-owner of the Los Angeles-based Golden Road Brewery and a former sales rep for Oskar Blues. “It wasn't hip, it hadn't reached any kind of critical mass, and it was much harder entry into craft beer than going to work for a well-established brewery with products that people were used to.”
Despite these early setbacks, Gill, whose wide range of beers are only available on the West Coast in cans or on draft, is thrilled to see how things have turned around - and is proud of her role in that process, too.
“Nowadays, you don't run into anybody, really, who says, ‘No, I want your beer in bottles,’ which is just great,” she continues. “Consumers are aware of the benefits of cans over bottles now, but that was fast, right? This was only seven years ago.”
Whether they contain 10% IPAs or 3% Berliner Weisses, cans appear to be the craft beer packaging of the future. And, in true craft beer fashion, cans add yet another layer of creativity to the brewing process, providing an apt canvas for a brewer to showcase their often-overlooked talents.
“I also like that there's more artistic real estate when designing for cans,” adds Radiant Pig’s Laurisa Milici. “It's an all around win-win situation that's pretty hard to argue with.” And one that certainly makes the case for cans when it comes to this recent trend in craft beer canning.
The case for cans? Keep an eye out for this trend but better yet, taste it.