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Bon Appetit: The Beer Can Revolution

If you think the best beers are only in bottles, think again. Brewers from around the world are discovering that the secret to freshness is in the can.   By Heather John

In fact, canned beer and the Super Bowl have more in common than halftime commercials. Like the Giants’ stunning victory over the undefeated New England Patriots, Dale’s Pale Ale has proven to be another underdog victor in the battle of perception: bottle versus can. “When we started, the idea of canning beer was blasphemous,” says Dale Katechis, founder of Oskar Blues. “It was frowned upon as a cheap way to deliver lager-style cheap beer. The fact is, if you put bad beer in a can, it’s going to be bad beer. But our goal is to deliver beer as fresh as possible, and the can is the best.” Since Oskar Blues first hand-canned their crisp, hoppy Dale’s Pale Ale eight years ago, today some 50 domestic craft breweries as well as 25 Canadian and a dozen internationally are following suit, placing their premium beers in cans.

The three biggest enemies of beer are light, oxygen, and heat. So if you think about it, cans eliminate the first two hazards. But as logical as that sounds, for this skeptic, tasting was believing. I confess that while I’ve been a fan of Dale’s Pale Ale for several years, I’d mentally filed the beer under the novelty category. (Wow! A great beer in a can!) My true conversion came when my favorite Fat Tire Amber Ale from New Belgium, which had previously only been available in brown bottles, came out in a can two summers ago. Here is where things get crazy. Taste the can and the bottle—side by side—and judge for yourself. The beer from the can tastes rich, toasty, and creamy. By comparison, the same beer in the bottle tastes a little flat, less fresh. Turns out there’s a reason why. New Belgium adds a slurry of active live yeast to its Fat Tire cans just before sealing to take up oxygen and prevent stale off-flavors. The result is a fresher, more complex beer. Think of it as a mini keg.

Now, try conducting the same side-by-side taste test with cans and bottles from one of your favorite craft brewers, like Brooklyn Brewery or 21st Amendment. Or from one of the larger quality producers, like Guinness or Stella Artois. I conducted this experiment with several colleagues, including our resident beer aficionado and design director, Matthew Lenning. “I was completely preconditioned to think that canned beer equaled bad beer (see Meister Bräu). Tasting is believing, however,” Lenning admits. “What seemed to me from the outset as just a gimmicky attempt to latch onto the Pabst-in-a-Can trend has actually improved the quality of what we drink.”

The truth is that many of us still largely associate cans with college kids, hipsters, and, let’s face it, cheap beer. “The myth is that high-quality craft beer has to be in a brown bottle,” says Oskar Blues’ Katechis. When American craft brewers started competing against import beers in green bottles some 20 years ago, they entered the market using brown glass bottles, which didn’t allow as much UV light in. (Green bottles are more prone to skunking beer.) This gave American craft brewers the advantage in quality control, and the ability to compete. “Microbrewers have always sold one beer at a time. It’s a grassroots movement. The moment a craft brewer gets focused on quantity, they stop being a craft brewer,” says Katechis. “These guys started in their garages and basements, and 20 years ago the only machines out there for cans were very large, so craft brewers were forced into bottles.”

Garrett Marrero at Maui Brewing Co. adds, “Even the large domestic breweries will tell you that cans are a better package for the beer. The myth of the metallic taste goes back to 50 years ago when tin cans were soldered with lead.” Today’s aluminum cans feature a water-based polymer lining that eliminates any metallic contamination. That is, the beer never comes in contact with the aluminum. “You’d have to bite the can while you were drinking from it,” Marrero jokes. “Coors has done the best job of marketing cans with the Frost Brew Liner to seal in freshness. That’s the same liner that has been in cans for more than 20 years now, and it does exactly what Coors says it does.”

But canned beer’s benefits don’t stop at freshness. Cans are easier on the environment: They are nearly 50 percent lighter to ship than bottles, which greatly reduces their carbon footprint. Jamie Gordon at Cask Brewing Systems, the Canadian company that invented the craft canning system in 1999 and sold its first U.S. model to Oskar Blues several years later, says the number one reason brewers call him is environmental concerns. Creating a more eco-friendly product is what led Marrero to put his craft brews exclusively in cans, a decision that helped earn him a “Who’s Keeping Hawaii Green” award in 2008. “Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, and recycled cans can be back on the shelf with new product within eight weeks,” says Marrero. “To use bottles, we’d have to ship from thousands of miles away only to ship it back. The cans are locally produced and have a one-way journey. It’s better for the beer, better for the environment.”

So whether you’re going green or toasting your team’s colors, when settling in this February 7 for America’s most-watched television broadcast, why not root for the underdog? Grab a pint glass, a can of craft brew, and prepare to level the playing field in the great beer debate.