Beer cans go upscale with craft brew

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IT ONLY TOOK 70 years, but America’s cutting-edge craft brewers have finally discovered . . . the beer can.
Till now, these tiny brewers have distributed their quirky ales and lagers in either kegs or dark brown bottles. It was all about purity and taste and the protection of their delicate product from unpleasant flavors.

Cans? Those were for crushing against your forehead, dude. Microbrewed beer was high-class hooch, not frat-boy swill! Small brewers would no sooner give up bottles for cans than Napa Valley would abandon cork in favor of twist-off caps.

And then one day, Dale Katechis and his pals at Oskar Blues Restaurant & Brewery in Lyons, Colo., were sitting around joking about the next step for their young company. At the time, their beers were sold on tap, only; you’d have to drive up to the brewpub in the foothills of the Rockies north of Denver for a taste. How could they sell their product to a wider audience? Someone mentioned cans.

“It made us all laugh – craft-brewed beer in a can,” said Katechis, the brewery’s founder. “But then we thought, doing something different like that actually fit in with our philosophy here. ”

“Different,” of course, is the eye of the beholder. After all, breweries have been canning since 1935. Within 25 years, cans overtook bottles in popularity, and it’s been that way ever since.

Microbrewers, though, shunned cans from the start. That’s partly because modern canning lines could cost five times the price of bottling equipment.

Bottles were also more convenient: When brewers change flavors, from pale ale to stout, for example, all they have to do is slap a different label on the same bottle. Cans, by contrast, are pre-printed with the same label, and they must be purchased in huge quantities.

More importantly, there was also a snob factor at work. If you were going to persuade consumers to cough up $25 or more for a case, if you wanted them to sip your bottle-conditioned ales over candlelight dinners, you had to distinguish your product from the same old 30-packs of BudCoorsMiller.

Oskar Blues wasn’t the first craft brewery to break the rules. For a brief period in 1999, Philadelphia’s Dock Street Amber was canned by F.X. Matt in New York. Henry Ortlieb, who owned the company briefly, told me he did it so he’d have something to drink on his boat.

But Oskar Blues was the first to actually go out and buy its own canning equipment, a new, less-expensive version made in Canada.

It turns out, though, the cheaper cost is secondary to all the other benefits, according to Katechis.

“The can is not a gimmick but a great package for microbrewed beer,” he said. “The cans are lined , and they impart zero flavor to the beer. They keep beer fresher longer because the beer never sees sunlight. The dissolved oxygen levels are lower than the industry standard. They’re easier to environmentally recycle. And it’s easier to package compared to a bottle. ”

If Katechis sounds like a canned proselytizer, it’s partly out of necessity. “We were up against industry sentiment that ‘you just can’t do it,’ ” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of joy out of turning people’s heads. The process of educating the consumer has gone a lot faster than we anticipated. ”

Indeed, in the three years since it canned its first beer, Oskar Blues has increased production tenfold.

Other small brewers are taking notice. According to Katechis, there are 26 U.S. microbreweries canning today, including highly regarded outfits like Tommyknocker, Ukiah, Big Sky and New England Brewing Co.

Sly Fox in Royersford, Pa., is expected to begin canning by next spring.

Aluminum isn’t for every craft-brewer, of course. I doubt we’ll ever see Brewery Ommegang put cave-aged Hennepin Farmhouse Saison into a can.

And it’s not for every drinker. “I do think there are some people who just won’t drink beer out of a can,” said Katechis. “It was like, when you were in high school, you drank out of a can. Unless you had a date, then you brought bottles.

“But we’re a bunch of rednecks in Lyons, Colorado, brewing really good beer and putting it in a can and laughing all the way to the bank. ”

So, how’s it taste?

Dale’s Pale Ale has more aroma than any beer I’ve ever chugged from a can. I can’t believe the hops make their way out of that tiny flip-top opening.

Likewise, Old Chub is a malt bomb. I actually poured this Scottish-style ale into a glass and was rewarded with a huge, billowy head and tons of toffee-like flavor. And it’s a kick, at 8 percent alcohol.

A brief history of the beer can

Jan. 24, 1935: First steel beer can, Krueger Brewing, Newark, N.J.

Jan. 25, 1935: Students at Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick, N.J., perfect the shotgun.

1959: Coors produces first aluminum beer can.

1962: Iron City produces first pull-tab, eliminating need for church key. Pittsburgh steel industry begins decline.

1977: Debut of Billy Beer, named after President Carter’s brother.

1978: John Belushi crushes beer can against his forehead in “Animal House.”

2002: Can of Clipper Pale (circa 1941) goes for $19,299 on eBay.

Joe Sixpack’s column written this week with a can of Old Chub Scottish Style Ale.

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