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March 21, 2013 | Beer in an aluminum can-vas
IT'S OFFICIAL: Canned craft beer is no longer evil.
We know this because Boston Beer, which once trumpeted that aluminum jeopardizes the flavor of beer, is finally canning its flagship Samuel Adams Boston Lager. The company said that it designed its funky-looking wide-lid can after consulting with a sensory expert who conducted an "ergonomic and flavor study."
The trendsetting brewery, however, is decidedly behind the curve when it comes to cans.
Nearly 900 separate brands from 266 small American breweries are now canned, according to an authoritative database maintained by CraftCans.com. That's a phenomenal number when you consider that just 11 years ago, the total was exactly zero.
But it's not just the fast-growing numbers that are notable. It turns out that aluminum cans are a perfect medium to express the creativity of small brewers.
Just check out the stacks of cans at your local beer store and you'll see what I'm talking about. Where bottle labels are mostly small, neat, uniform rectangles, cans are open canvases that give imaginative artists a greater opportunity to reflect the spirit of the beer inside.
FDR calmly smoking on 21st Amendment Fireside Chat is as warming and comfortable as a spiced winter warmer. Flying Dog Snake Dog, illustrated with the insane artwork of Ralph Steadman, is manic and in your face. The life-size, clenched fist dominating cans from Chicago's Revolution Brewing makes you want to grab one for yourself.
Take a look at the leaping fighters on Asheville Brewing Ninja Porter, or the trippy reflective hophead on Alchemist Heady-Topper. You couldn't create attention-grabbing images like that with a simple paper label.
"The people doing the artwork on these cans are extremely talented," said Russ Phillips, who operates CraftCans.com. He's such a fan of the designs, he's authored a book, Canned! Artwork of the American Beer Can, to be published this fall.
"When I first started the website three years ago, it was almost just a personal thing," Phillips said. "I just struggled to find breweries who were thinking of going into canning. Today, it's a struggle to keep up."
And it's going to continue growing as small brewers start experimenting with the flexibility that cans provide.
For example, check out the packaging from Brooklyn's Sixpoint Brewery. It opted for 16-ounce cans and discovered that four of them in a box are a perfect cube. The boxes are ideal for stacking and make impressive, eye-catching floor displays.
Oskar Blues Brewery, in Colorado, which launched this whole revolution as the first micro to brew and can its beer in 1992, is also reaching beyond the conventional. Last year it introduced retro-looking cans with twist-off caps.
Churchkey Can Co., the Seattle company founded by actor Adrian Grenier ("Entourage"), took an even bigger step backward by packaging its Pilsner in an old-fashioned flattop steel can. And, yes, you need a can opener (what we used to call a church key) to open the damn thing.
Meanwhile, 21st Amendment chose a smaller, eight-ounce can (à la Red Bull) for its potent Lower De Boom Barleywine - just enough for one healthy glass of this potent (11.5 percent alcohol by volume) ale.
The next big step will come next week at the Craft Brewers Conference, in Washington, D.C., when Sly Fox Brewing, of Pottstown, unveils its new, open-ended can.
Designed by Philadelphia's Crown Holdings, the can features the so-called 360 End, which tears off like a soup-can lid, exposing the entire top like an open cup.
"What's cool about this is you're able to smell the aroma of the beer," said Brian O'Reilly, of Sly Fox, which packages about half its beer in cans. "That's the one thing that's a challenge in a [regular] can. Now drinkers can better appreciate the beer without pouring it into a glass."
The can end was introduced a couple of years ago at the World Cup and is now used by Budweiser in China.
You'll see it next month when Sly Fox Helles Golden Lager becomes the first American-made beer to be sold in the open-ended cans. And keep your eyes peeled at Phillies home games, where Sly Fox Pikeland Pils will be sold exclusively in them.
There is one downside to the new design: Unlike conventional pull-tabs that remain attached to the can, this lid must be disposed of separately. O'Reilly noted that, while some state litter laws may prohibit their use, the lids use less metal and are more environmentally friendly.
And the upside is that - once empty - the cans are far easier to pee into.