Late summer's the perfect time to crack open some wheaty, hoppy creation from one of the country's more than 1,500 craft breweries. But don't you dare reach for the bottle opener, says Marty Jones of Oskar Blues brewery, based in Lyons, Colorado, who is busy changing industry perception as well as making six-packs of irreverent ales like Mama's Little Yella Pils. "Our beer from a can is like Big Maybelle's voice coming from Ashlee Simpson's mouth," he says. "Folks don't expect such glorious, full-throated art from the lowly can."
As the first microbrewery to start canning its beer in 2002, Oskar Blues leads a pack of about 40 craft beer makers who are making the switch to aluminum in the name of both sustainability and better drinkability. Notably, New Belgium Brewery, the Fort Collins, Colorado brewery known for its super-sustainable policies—it became the first wind-powered brewery in 1999—started canning its popular Fat Tire in 2008, and this year released its perennial summer hit, Sunshine Wheat, in a can.
While the craft beer industry itself is experiencing healthy growth—5.9% by volume and 10.1% by dollars in 2008, according to Beertown.org—canned craft beer sales have exploded. They increased 160% in the last half of 2008, according to Cask, a canning system used by craft-beer companies. Its Web site points out the benefits of switching from glass, including increased convenience, decreased costs, and the possibility that an egalitarian can might reach more consumers than a snooty bottle. Perhaps that's the key: Oskar Blues reports that its sales are up 80%.
The sustainability facts seem to be in the can's favor. Consumers are more likely to recycle cans, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute: 52% of aluminum drinking cans get recycled, which is the highest recycling rate for any beverage container. The aluminum can is also the only packaging solution that is 100% recyclable. A study on Planet Green showed that the can starts as a greener receptacle, because the average beer can already contains 40% recycled aluminum, compared to about 20% to 30% recycled glass in bottles.
According to Jones, the move to aluminum has also helped Oskar Blues save some serious shipping charges. "About 35% of the weight of a bottle of beer is the bottle," he says. "Beer is shipped by weight, so we get 35% more beer on truck."
Perhaps the biggest challenge holding back the craft-brew industry from embracing the can even further is the consumer perception, long encouraged by microbreweries, that the glass bottle signifies a premium beer. "No doubt, one of the biggest hurdles to our success has been the perception of canned beer," says Jones. "Before we came along, they held bland, watered-down beer that doesn't inspire craft beer fans." Remember those ads for Samuel Adams where a wavery-voiced Jim Koch basically told consumers that a bottle equaled better beer?
No more. Cans are lined with a water-based epoxy so aluminum and beer never meet. And advocates say cans actually improve on a bottle's design by eliminating the "headspace," that little pocket of air that you see at the top of a bottle. They also keep beer fresher, longer, because their opaqueness provides the beer full protection from light and oxygen. In 2007, Pennsylvania-based Sly Fox Pikeland Pils won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, beating out bottled competition and putting to bed any myths about the metallic taste of beer in a can.
But we all know where the real judges sit. So I asked a bartender at the legendary Los Angeles gastropub Father's Office, where a carefully curated lineup of taps run the length of the bar. Here, the tap handle for Oskar Blues' Old Chub is proudly designed to look like a can, making it quite obviously the only canned beer represented on this wall o' microbrews. It's a popular beer, said the bartender, and he agreed that aluminum does protect beer better. But for some real insight, he encouraged me to look past the bottle, past the tap, and all the way back to the source. "Think about a keg," he said. "It's really just a giant can."