Craft Beer in a Can

By Seth Daire on Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Canned craft beer from Colorado

Walk into a liquor store in Fort Collins, Colorado, and you’ll see a variety of local craft brews on the shelves. Bottles. Everywhere. For the longest time, craft beer has been offered almost exclusively in bottles. Recently, however, some craft brewers, both big and small, are starting to offer their wares in cans. Look more closely and you’ll now discover cans of New Belgium’s Shift Pale Lager and Pateros Creek’s Cache La Porter. What is driving this shift?

Cathy Jones, one of the owners of Pateros, told me that cans were “always part of the plan.” Pateros is oriented towards the outdoors, and cans fit in with that, in part due to their portability. It was MobileCanning, based in Longmont, that provided an option to can earlier. When Pat Hartman of MobileCanning was asked why craft brewers are choosing to can, he replied simply, “Because cans are a superior package.” In many ways, they are.

Beer began its journey in cans in 1933, as prohibition was ending. Krueger , based in Newark, New Jersey, is considered the first to can their beer, though it would take two more years, to 1935, before it was publicly available. Back then, it was steel with a flat top that required a punch top opener. The modern aluminum beer can was introduced by Coors in 1959. While they were not the first brewery to produce beer in aluminum cans, Coors was part of a consortium called Aluminum International that developed the aluminum can technology. It was the first seamless two-piece beer can and was also recyclable.

While cans have been a mainstay for many drinkers of domestic beers, craft beer in a can has been uncommon. Craft beer in a can was available as early as 1991 with the release of Chief Oshkosh Red Lager, which was canned at Stevens Point Brewery. Yukon Brewing was the first craft brewer in North America to can their own beer. They were the first to implement a canning line from Cask Brewing Systems, a Canadian company which built a system targeted towards craft brewers.

Oskar Blues Brewing, based in Longmont, CO, is known as the “America’s first hand-canned craft beer,” and are notable for being the first American craft brewery to distribute their own beer to consumers exclusively in cans. They also used the Cask canning system, investing $10,000 in their initial setup, which included 20 pallets of cans (or 156,000). It was a manual system where two guys could produce 4 to 6 cans a minute. Their newest canning line can produce 280 cans a minute and their flagship beer, Dale’s Pale Ale, is well known and liked by many in craft beer circles. Oskar Blues wasn’t the first craft brewer in the world to can their own beer, but they are among the first, and the most famous for doing so.

New Belgium Brewing put their flagship beer, Fat Tire Amber Ale, into cans in 2008. Since then, they’ve added their Sunshine Wheat and Ranger IPA to the mix, along with Shift, which is offered in can and keg only. Last year, New Belgium massively upgraded their can line. Their first can line filled 60 cans a minute. Their new 16,000 foot canning line is manufactured by KHS and produces 360 cans a minute, after an investment of 8 million dollars to create it.

Many small breweries are not in a position to invest the capital required to build a canning operation. While the production cost per unit of beer is cheaper, and it takes less people to operate, the setup costs are typically higher for a full-fledged canning system versus a bottle system, and the minimum order produced is larger. Thus, the total cost may be more in the short term. Pricing for canned beer in stores can vary due to both production cost and retail store markup.

Small breweries often have a taproom and offer kegs and perhaps growlers, but the options for distributing in liquor stores are limited. Pat Hartman and Ron Popma noticed that opportunity and sought a way to fill it. In 2011, they created the first mobile canning system in the United States. Their system is designed to be easy to be setup onsite at a brewery, can, and then be tore down and transported to another location the following day. For small breweries, MobileCanning Colorado offers an appealing option to get their beer our there.

Rather than a capital cost which may sit when not in operation, MobileCanning provides a service. Orders tend to range from 100 to 600 cases in a given day. They currently have around 14 clients in Colorado along with 15 affiliates all over the country. What kinds of beer styles can be canned? “Anything. All styles are suitable for cans,” Pat explained.

Though Crabtree Brewing already had a bottling operation, they became MobileCanning’s first customer in 2011, and currently produce three beers in cans. As owner Jeff Crabtree said, “I jumped on the Mobile Canning side…because the barriers to entry are so minuscule. It's a wonderful model for smaller breweries.”

Pateros Creek is a small brewery at the north end of Old Town Fort Collins. They have a small, rustic taproom where one can choose a draft of their Legends standards or their Renegades rotating batches. Their beer is produced in back. While they do get their kegs out to various locations in Colorado, there isn’t the space for a bottling or canning operation in their current space. Because of MobileCanning, you can buy cans of their Cache la Porter and Old Town Ale at liquor stores throughout town.

With production costs being less of an issue, what about the people who buy cans? When Oskar Blues decided to put their beer into cans, one of their concerns was the perception that cans would be associated with an inferior beer. While that hurdle has been surpassed, opinions of cans differ, with a difference of taste being a factor. Whether it is better or worse depends on who you ask, and what specific beer you are drinking.

Does the same beer taste different from a bottle versus a can? I think so. To me, beer directly from a bottle has slightly more flavor, while beer from a can is more subdued. Bottles also maintain their temperature longer (while also taking longer to cool), which also contributes. Beer never comes in contact with the aluminum, due to a plastic lining, so a metallic taste isn’t a concern. Some say the aluminum top does affect the smell though, and smell does affect how things taste, so the recommendation is to pour into a glass. If one is at home, pouring from a bottle or can into a glass is common for a craft beer drinker, if not the default. Cans also keep out oxygen and light entirely, which helps keep beer tasting fresh.

Convenience is where cans shine though, due to their smaller size, stackable design, and lighter weight. When away, they are easier to carry and pack, can be taken where glass cannot, and also can be compacted when finished. They store more easily, whether in a fridge, cooler, or room. Cans are also more commonly recycled and use a lot less energy when making new cans from recycled cans. Not only are bottles recycled by people less often, in Fort Collins, they are hardly recycled at all.

There are some negatives to cans though, most notably the environmental affects and resource usage of producing aluminum. Also, the plastic liner contains BPA, which has come under scrutiny the last few years as being a toxin, and some people would prefer to avoid it as much as possible.

The canned beer trend looks promising for the craft beer industry. It offers additional distribution options for brewers and additional options for the consumer as well. Not only do cans go where bottles can’t, but there is more potential variety at stores and restaurants.

While it is a common sentiment that canned beer tastes different, canned beer does taste good, and is convenient to use and recycle, and for some breweries, like Pateros, it’s a great option for you to get their beer without having to stop into their brewery. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more small breweries offer their beer in cans. And you may hear people say, “Excuse me, could I have another can of that craft beer?”