A day at the beach. Picnics on the lawn. Eighteen holes after work. Supper around the campfire. An afternoon on the lake. All wonderful summer activities where a good beer would be welcome, but where the weight and hazards of a glass bottle would not.
The answer, of course, is beer in a can: Far lighter than glass, cans don't break into dangerous shards, and the empties are easy to crush, carry and recycle. The problem, however, has been that beer quality had to be sacrificed for convenience.
No more, though. If that picnic calls for a highly hopped India pale ale instead of a mainstream lager, Carolina Brewery's Flagship IPA—a gold medal winner just a few years ago—is now available in a can. If your mood calls for a balanced, herbal wit beer, pop open Avery's outstanding White Rascal. After golf, what could be more thirst-quenching than 21st Amendment's Hell and High Watermelon Wheat Beer? And should the occasion call for a sophisticated dessert stout, Oskar Blues Ten Fidy pours velvety and black—out of a 12-ounce can.
A score of craft beer styles are now available in cans: pale ales, India pale ales and "black" IPAs; Belgian-style golden, strong dark and wit beers; German-style wheat beers; ambers, brown ales and dry stouts. A pleasantly surprised customer wandering the beer aisles can't help but wonder, what took so long?
The answer is that what began as an economic obstacle to canning beer morphed into a perception problem.
Beer has been sold in cans since 1935, when the Krueger Brewing Co. in New Jersey debuted its cream ale in a heavy (by modern standards) steel can. The company must have been uncertain of the can's reception, initially rolling out the canned ale in a backwater of their distribution range. Krueger needn't have worried: The popularity of cans grew until they became the dominant package over the next three decades.
However, canning lines were prohibitively expensive for any but the largest brewing companies. The cans themselves were sold only in bulk quantities that small companies couldn't afford or store. Since the only beers available in cans were the big, mass-marketed brands, consumers made a logical but erroneous leap: Cans mean boring beer, and bottles mean quality beer.
A Canadian company, Cask Brewing Systems, challenged the affordability problem with a canning system designed for "the cottage beer industry." Its tabletop-sized system was labor-intensive, but priced at around $10,000, it ran a fraction of the cost of large commercial systems.
The bigger impediment, however, was the image problem. Craft beer, with its emphasis on quality ingredients and hands-on production, seemed a bad fit with the can's Joe Sixpack aura. Established craft brewers were reluctant to tarnish their hard-gained reputations. It took a renegade startup to test the question "Will craft beer consumers accept high quality beer out of a can?"
Oskar Blues Brewing Co. in Colorado took the bold step, becoming Cask Brewing Systems' first American client and introducing Dale's Pale Ale (named for founder Dale Katechis) exclusively in cans in 2002. At a potent 6.5 percent alcohol, this highly hopped beer was met with initial skepticism. I remember attending a launch party for the brand during the Great American Beer Festival in 2002 and reluctantly accepting a can. Would the metal taint the beer? Could good beer even come from a can?
When The New York Times named Dale's as the top U.S. pale ale in a blind tasting in 2005, the déclassé reputation of the can was moderated. Oskar Blues still has the most wonderfully incongruous assortment of beer styles in the can format: a huge imperial IPA, a strong Scottish-style ale, an imperial red, as well as a delicate pilsner. The pioneer brewery as gone from strength to strength, all in cans.
Faced with the can-bottle choice, some smaller breweries and brewpubs decided to go cans-only. Caldera Brewing Co. in Oregon makes the case for cans on its website: "Why cans? Elimates light and oxidation. Lighter to carry. Do not break as easily. 100% recyclable. Chill quicker and stay cold longer. Take them rafting, camping, fishing."
Locally, Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery began hand-canning its lager and IPA on a tiny system several years ago almost as a novelty. Plus, it gave the brewpub a convenient package for retail distribution. Top of the Hill has cut back recently, but six-packs are still available at the restaurant.
By contrast, Durham's Triangle Brewing Co. made the complete commitment to cans, launching with their potent Belgian Golden Ale. The company's regular Saturday brewery tours are a great chance to see an automated canning line on site.
It is the mid-sized and large craft breweries that have been slow to come on board, because they had already invested in large, ambitious bottling lines, or because they've been reluctant to tinker with their reputation. Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer (the Samuel Adams line), has been outspoken about what he sees as the dubious quality of canned beer.
That, too, is changing. In what feels like a hell-freezes-over moment, some of the best-established companies have put their brews in cans, and not just their easy-drinking styles: Brooklyn's East India Pale Ale, Harpoon IPA, New Belgium's Fat Tire, Anderson Valley's Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout and Sierra Nevada's Torpedo IPA.
A few years ago, I would have ended this column with a coy "Anybody ready for canned barleywine?" or "Maybe your next six-pack will be an oak-aged Flemish sour in a can!" But those quips are too likely to be overtaken by events. Bottled beer may retain its cachet, but its reign is not absolute. Can the can deliver? Indeed, it can.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The little can that could."