Photo: Michelle Klug
Thinking of beer in a can may leave a bad taste in your mouth. You may associate it with cheap, metallic-tasting beer or rowdy tailgating, but the recent evolution of canned beer may challenge those preconceived notions. A growing number of craft brewers and beer experts will be quick to tell you that putting high-quality product in cans is key for convenience and quality.
“Cans are superior for packaging because of the portability and the quality of the beer,” Dale Katechis explained. Katechis is the owner of Oskar Blues Brewery; he started the trend of canning craft beer in 2002. Since craft beer has taken off, and steadily rises each year, canning can be something that defines a brewery. For beer lovers, there’s no mistaking the bright blue and red Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale can. Everything from hoppy pale ales, smooth stouts, and wheaty summer beers are now being canned.
Factually, canning beer maintains the quality of the product better than bottles.
“In general, people consider draft beer to be the freshest, best beer you can get, so we like to think of the can as a mini-keg that delivers draft-quality fresh beer to your glass,” Clayton Robinson, owner of Sun King Brewing Company, said.
Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewer’s Association, said craft beer in a can maintains its quality since it is not spoiled by light. “With cans, sunlight cannot permeate the beer. With clear and green bottles, light causes a photochemical reaction where beer can start to give off a skunk aroma,” Herz said. “With brown bottles, there is less light getting in, but still some.”
Canning brewers will tell you that this is not just their own personal opinion, but a matter of beer science. “Light causes beer to have a skunk-like flavor because it degrades the hops and actually creates the same chemical compound that a skunk excretes - hence 'skunky',” Clayton Robinson said. Cans also protect from oxygen, another component that can cause beer to go bad.
A popular complaint is the metallic taste associated with cans; Katechis refutes that myth by pointing out, “There’s a liner in aluminum cans that protects the beer from ever touching metal.” Katechis added that the tinny taste comes from the low-quality beer that was in cans before craft beer took over this improved packaging process.
Quality is not the only benefit of canning. Beer in a can is much more portable and eco-friendly. While taking a bunch of clanking bottles to outdoor activities can be a pain and maybe even illegal, cans are lighter, more easily transported, and allowed in some stadiums and parks. “The portability of cans is unmatched,” Colorado-based Katechis added. “You can cool down a can of beer in 5 minutes, take them backpacking, hiking, on bike trips – basically anywhere in the outdoors.”
Cans are also better for the environment: “Cans are infinitely recyclable and take far less energy to do so than their glass counterparts,” Robinson said. Recycling facilities are more likely to take aluminum as well.
Beyond convenience and quality, this unique packaging process has actually been shown to save breweries money. “Cans are definitely less expensive to transport because they are lighter,” Herz said. Simply put, less weight means less fuel and brewers can recirculate this extra cash back into their breweries.
When it comes to cans, brewers are fully aware of the stigmas that come along with canned beer – besides metallic taste; canned beer is associated with cheap beer.
“We started canning in 2002. It was hysterical at the time to even consider putting craft beer in a can because of the reputation,” founding canner Katechis said. “We felt like consumers would scoff at it, but we decided to take the risk.”
Since 2002, many breweries have followed suit. Herz said she has seen a steady growth since Oskar Blues emerged with their compact cans. Canned craft beer expert Russ Phillips said there are over 200 craft breweries brewing over 600 varieties of canned craft beers – a dramatic rise from just one in 2002.
“Sierra Nevada in now canning,” Herz said. “They started the style of American Pale Ale, so the fact that they are now canning is huge.”
Craft beer sales continue to rise each year, with a 15% increase in 2011, according to the Brewer’s Association. When it comes to canning, both brewers and experts are confident that quality will take precedence over can stigmas for true beer lovers.
“We still have a long way to go but early adopters were willing to try it and realized that there’s too many advantages to let the myths about cans outweigh the benefits,” Katechis said.
“I think it will only advance more quickly from here,” Herz added. “Selection and diversity are beautiful things for craft beer lovers; style, brand, and packaging all represent the evolution of craft beer.”
If the curiosity for cans strikes you, Oskar Blues cans are available in most convenience stores. Try a Mama’s Little Yella Pils for a light, citrusy beer, suitable for a sunny, hot day outside. For a more robust find, grab a classic hoppy Dale’s Pale ale, or for a warm pick-me-up on a cool night, try a smooth Old Chub Scotch Ale.