Though the bottle remains craft beer’s vessel of choice, the can is resurgent, and it’s here to stay
Back in the day (Jan. 24, 1935, to be exact), when canned beer was first introduced to the American public, yellow, fizzy lagers and cream ales ruled the land. Names like Piels, Schlitz, Stroh’s, Ballantine and Genesee, to name a few, carved out a considerable niche on liquor store shelves, at local watering holes, and at the ballgame.
Over time, the “big three”—Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors—got in on the canning craze and pushed more product via aluminum than ever thought imaginable. (Thanks in large part to the macrobreweries, 55 percent of the beer produced in the United States today comes in a can.)
Some 80 years later, cans are taking the world of craft beer by storm. While bottles have been the container of choice since the mid-1980s, upstart breweries like 21st Amendment, Oskar Blues and New Belgium have brought cans to the forefront. Local liquor stores and bars and restaurants are devoting more space to the aluminum cans, and even breweries that have long bottled are making the transition.
Cans Across America
Dr. Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade association that promotes and protects small and independent breweries, spends a good portion of his time conducting large surveys on beer production. Watson says that while bottles are still the primary choice for a majority of craft breweries, can production has increased the past five years.
“In 2011 we calculated that craft volume was 2 percent cans, and in 2014 we estimated it at 10 percent,” Watson says. “Scanned data year-to-date has it closer to 15 percent of packaged volume.”
The numbers don’t lie—canned craft beer production is certainly on the rise. However, the numbers can also be deceiving. Yes, canned beer is up to 15 percent of overall craft volume, but bottles still reign supreme, with a nearly 60 percent share of the market.
“There are several reasons why bottled craft still dominates, beginning with the fact that a lot of the larger craft breweries have bottled beer for a long time, and continue to do so,” Watson says. “But canned beer is on the rise, and likely here to stay, now that perception has changed.”
What has changed perception? One reason is that most breweries now line their cans with a synthetic compound, thus reducing any kind of metallic aftertaste. Also, the aluminum cans protect beer from one of its most dangerous enemies: light. And, finally, the cans give breweries plenty of room to get creative with artistic logos and coloring.
Tim Matthews, head of brewing operations for Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colo., says the company cans all of its beers (and have since 2002) because “our passion for beer mingles with our other passions, like bikes and music and good food. As brewers, we love the cans, because we feel cans line up with those passions and allows us to further that creative spirit.”
Can-venience: Saving Space on the Shelf
From the Wilmington Riverfront to Trolley Square, there are plenty of bars and package stores across the city where craft cans have taken up prime placement. Venu Gaddamidi, owner of Veritas Wine & Craft Beer on Justison Street, says that when he opened in 2009, he didn’t stock or sell much canned beer at all. Now, roughly 25 percent of his inventory is dedicated to canned craft.
“It’s amazing how the sales pitch went from ‘canned is crap’ to ‘canned is craft’ in such a short period of time,” Gaddamidi says. “It’s great, because I can stack more inventory in a limited amount of space, and the cans really move quickly. People like the idea of grabbing a light six-pack and tubing down the Brandywine or going on a bike ride, instead of hauling a heavier six-pack of glass bottles, which carry the risk of breaking.”
Across town at Kelly’s Logan House, every Wednesday—as has been the case for four years now—customers can take part in the weekly “Can Jam.” For just $3 a pop, craft lovers have their choice of canned craft beer. General Manager Tim Crowley says Kelly’s started offering more craft nearly five years ago, for several reasons.
“We felt that most products held up better for the consumer. After all, light is the death of many a fine beer,” Crowley says. “Storing and stocking canned beer is also more convenient, as they take up less real estate and allow us to offer more options. From a brewery standpoint, cans open up additional marketing idea options; it’s difficult to differentiate yourself with a neon green bottle, but you sure can make a cool can.”
Breweries that have long resisted canning—most notably Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, Calif., and Dogfish Head Brewery here in Delaware—have also decided to make the move. Dogfish Head Founder and President Sam Calagione always had a “never say never” attitude on canning, whereas Lagunitas owner Tony Magee said he’d can on the “12th of never.”
But, both have come to the conclusion that now is the time to can, and so the “12th of Never Ale” from Lagunitas is already available in Delaware, and the 60 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head is due in the can this fall.
Taking the Plunge
Sam Calagione has been bottling the 60 Minute IPA, his flagship beer, for nearly 20 years. The logo on the brown bottle is essentially an icon in craft beer circles, but after careful consideration and research, Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute will arrive in cans come November.
“Cans are here to stay, I think that’s safe to say. The technology has advanced in terms of canning equipment,” Calagione says. “There’s also no longer that metallic taste people associate with canned beer.”
One of the more popular can liners responsible for the absence of that metallic aftertaste is BPA, or Bisphenol A, an organic synthetic compound used to make plastics and epoxy resins. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned its use in the production of baby bottles, but says trace amounts aren’t harmful.
Gaddamidi, who worked in pharmaceutical sales before opening Veritas, says the evidence denouncing BPA is more anecdotal than empirical. Studies have been done, he says, but the concern is more related to children than adults.
“Children are more susceptible to issues like this, as their immune systems are still developing,” Gaddamidi says. “You can read up on which breweries are using BPA, and even where they are mining their aluminum, but it’s not something to be overly concerned about.”
Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, says his understanding of the health impacts of BPA is related to body weight and endocrine disruption, but that the compound passes through the body so quickly, it isn’t much of a health concern.
“We are not scientists, and the science does not always agree, so it’s difficult to know how to best advise members beyond FDA guidance,” says Gatza. “While the FDA is not concerned about small amounts, many craft brewers are following research into can liners without BPA (BPA non-intent, or BPANI), as a way to meet beer drinker expectations. We should know more in 2017.”
In the meantime, more breweries are going with aluminum for both financial and environmental reasons. Jon Sipes, New Belgium’s “Delaware Beer Ranger,” says aluminum beats bottles in three different categories.
“The average aluminum can is made from about 30-40 percent recycled aluminum, and aluminum cans are the most recyclable package worldwide,” Sipes says. “Cans also use a fraction of energy to produce, ship, and recycle, compared to glass, and it takes less energy to cool down a can, so you can pop the top and enjoy quicker.”
Whether or not aluminum cans cool faster is up for debate. Watson says there’s no evidence or study to prove such a theory, though it seems to make sense. Regardless, he says choosing aluminum or bottle can depend on the situation or occasion.
“Cans make sense in the summertime; you’re outdoors, they’re lighter,” Watson says. “You might not want to sit at a meal by a fire in the winter with a can of beer. But right now, it’s all about perception.”
Whatever your preferred vessel, the perception of canned beer is changing. Cans no longer carry the stigma of poor taste or lower quality. And the more the popular craft breweries step up and commit to the can, the better off beer drinkers will be.