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.”
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%.
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?
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.”