It’s In the Can

By Jack Curtin

If there is a tide in the affairs of men, it seems fitting that its currents made 2010 the year in which craft brewers packaging their brews in cans moved from oddity to trend. After all, 2010 marked the 200th anniversary of the can as a food and beverage container and the 75th anniversary of the beer can, which was introduced on January 24, 1935 with the test-market release of Krueger’s Cream Ale in steel cans.

Despite some overly exuberant claims earlier in 2010 that more than 100 craft breweries are now canning (there is no official source to provide exact data), the websites CraftCans.com and BeerNews.org are probably more on target, each reporting around 80 U.S. craft breweries canning or contract canning at least one of their beers as of this September. Adam Nason of BeerNews.org says that, “at least 20 of those breweries began canning this year.” Those canning breweries are located in 34 states, a number that could approach 40 by year’s end. Colorado leads the way with 12 breweries, according to CraftCans.com spokesperson Russ Phillips.

The modern rush of craft beer in cans dates back to the introduction of Dale’s Pale Ale from Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery in November 2002. Everyone in brewing knows the story: how they started with a little tabletop two-can-at-a-time system at their Lyons brewpub with no grand scheme in mind, their intentions more playful than serious (“We thought the idea was hilarious,” says founder Dale Katechis); how they soon pushed the envelope with the introduction of Old Chub Scottish-style Ale and Gordon Imperial Red Ale, proving that there were no style limitations to canned beers; how they built a new brewery in Longmont in 2008, including a high-speed Nanjing Industries canning line from China with an 18-head filler that can produce more than 160 cans per minute. Last year, Oskar Blues moved onto the Top 50 Producing Craft Brewing Companies list; they have a compounded annual sales growth rate of 61 percent since that first release of Dale’s Pale Ale.

Cans Catch On

Marty Jones, who was there at the dawn of craft canning with Oskar Blues and is now reliving history at Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Co. where a new canning operation was launched this year, offers some perspective on a time when there were more skeptics than advocates. “As the guy who sent out the first press release saying ‘hey, we’re a microbrewery that’s canning our beer,’ I can tell you that in the early days people shook their heads when you talked about craft beer in cans, retailers passed on the product and consumers had their doubts. It took a while for most people to learn that the beer was just as good from a can and to appreciate the advantages of cans as a container, both for the beer and for the environment.” Of the current Wynkoop program, he says, “This shows that an old dog can learn new tricks and the state’s first brewpub can still be innovative; we have two beers out already and demand is already approaching supply.”

According to Cask Brewing Systems, Inc., the main provider of cans to the industry, the tipping point for canning came in the spring of 2008 when New Belgium announced it was putting Fat Tire into cans. “The phones started ringing a lot more often,” said Cask’s Jamie Gordon. From then on, we haven’t had to ask breweries if they want to try canning; just about every sale has come from the brewery calling us. There are also a lot of stories out there now about breweries that have been very successful with cans. When Dale’s Pale Ale was named the top example of the style by a New York Times tasting panel in 2005, it had a great impact.”

Racking up awards never hurts, and Oskar Blues keeps on doing that, including multiple gold medals for every one of its canned brews in the 2009 and 2010 World Beer Championships and a citation from Beverage World magazine as “Breakout Brand of the Year” last May, Gordon Imperial Red was named “Best of Show” at the first ever canned beer festival, Canfest, held in Reno, Nev. Last year. That event was created by Buckbean Brewing Co., the largest production microbrewery in Western Nevada, which started canning in 2008. The second session was held this October. Oskar Blues held the initial session of its own canned beer festival, Burning Can, in Lyons last June.

Sly Fox Brewing Co. of Royersford, Pa., which started canning in 2006 with an ACS line, registered the biggest award for a canned beer to date. Its Pikeland Pils, which had won a Great American Beer Festival gold medal in 2000 under a different name, repeated that feat in a can in 2007, offering solid evidence that it is the beer and not the container that matters. Brewmaster Brian O’Reilly stresses that the pilsner was not a special batch. “The day our beers were being submitted, I just walked over to the canning line, picked up a six-pack and that’s what we sent to Denver.”

For pure volume of awards, Hawaii’s largest brewery is without peer. “Maui Brewing has won over 70 medals in various competitions here and abroad since we started canning in March 2007,” says founder Garrett Marrero, “and every one of them was for beer in a can.” Maui is now producing more beer in a month than it did three years ago; they are using five-head Cask ACS and plan to upgrade to a larger Crown 40 valve filler and Angelus 61H seamer shortly.

Working out the Details

Assuming a small brewery can work out the financial arrangements to buy a new line and all those cans, the space required for everything can be a second major issue. San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery and Restaurant faced that problem. “When we first started canning we used the Cask two-headed manual filler,” explains partner Nico Freccia. “We did two cans at a time, three people working, kicking out about 50 cases in a moderate day’s work. Then we bought a used five-head filler but never even unpacked it. We had no place to put it and couldn’t find a local brewery where we could rent space. So we sold it to a Canadian brewery and started looking around outside the immediate area. Now we’re contract brewing with Cold Spring Brewing in Cold Spring, Minn., and it’s been a great partnership. They have high speed, sophisticated equipment, really nice high-tech stuff we could not afford on our own. My partner Shaun O’Sullivan goes up there to brew. We look at it as having a brewery in San Francisco and another in the Midwest. We have access to better labs and packaging equipment can grow without worrying about tanks and new people and infrastructure.”

Possibly the smallest and surely the most unusual canning program in the country is that out of German-born Henryk Orlik, a production manager at Abita Brewing in New Orleans from 1997 – 2002, who set out to open his own brewery, Heiner Brau, in his nearby adopted hometown of Covington in 2005. His plan was to produce a single beer, a Kolsch to be sold in cans packaged with a Cask MCL. While he was brewing his initial batch, Hurricane Katrina hit. Heiner Brau is located in a well-fortified old building that came through the storm relatively unscathed. Others were not so lucky.

“In a very short time, I became the united brewer of New Orleans,” Orlik explains. “I was asked to brew beer for the other breweries that closed after Katrina. Among other things, Heiner Brau was the last brewery who brewed Dixie Beer in Louisiana.” His clients wanted their beer in bottles, so Orlik moved a six-head Meheen line from the shuttered Big Easy Brewery to his plant.  Since then, his business has grown to where he makes and packages 10 different styles. He now believes that the New Orleans market is not ready for craft beer in cans and is still putting 99 percent of his production into bottles. The other 1 percent, however, is canned for a very special customer.

“I package beer for my home and family in cans because I like it better that way,” Orlik says. “I believe cans are the best choice for beer.”

Find this article in its entirety in the 2010 November/December issue of The New Brewer.


Jack Curtin

Jack Curtin writes about beer in print for Celebrator Beer News, American Brewer, Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, Ale Street News and The New Brewer on a regular basis. Online, Jack publishes the beer blog Jack Curtin’s Liquid Diet, and is the content editor for news items, events listings and beer descriptions at The Beer Yard.