Yes, we can!

I wrote this piece for the March/April 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide; it is reprinted with permission.

It used to be that the distinction between a craft beer and a macrobrew was an easy one to make: the craft beer was in a bottle, the macrobrew, a can. But almost 10 years ago, craft brewers began to challenge this perhaps illusory division, and minds have been changing ever since. Currently, several Michigan craft breweries offer their fine products in cans, and more will join their ranks in the months and years ahead.

Though many would like the claim the title of “first,” it’s generally accepted that this trend began in 2002, when restaurant owner Dale Katechis started brewing. “Dale is always one to do something different, and he saw canning beer as one of those opportunities,” recalls Chad Melis, marketing director at Oskar Blues Brewing Company in Colorado. The decision seems to be paying off: at Oskar Blues, production has advanced from 17,000 bbl (barrels) three years ago to 42,000 bbl last year, with 70 percent of their product shipped out-of-state.

“People wondered why we would consider this,” continues Melis. “Well, it’s better for the beer. It protects the beer by eliminating light, and it keeps it fresher; it has less contact with oxygen.” Light and oxygen are indeed the two big obstacles to overcome in order to maintain a fresh brew: Cans clearly keep out light better than bottles, and filled cans contain less oxygen than filled bottles. A can creates a superior seal compared to bottle caps, and by keeping out oxygen, this seal increases shelf life.

A fresher beer was a big part of the decision, but certainly not the only factor. “The other part of it was really just to throw people a curve-ball,” Melis relates with delight in his voice. “You shove a big, hoppy IPA into a can and then step back and see the reactions. People smell it, they taste it, and it’s a jaw-dropping experience.”

The promise of better-protected brew and that vibe of excitement have drawn many small breweries to can their beer in recent years. According to craftcans.com, 100 craft breweries in the U.S. currently can their beer. And, there are additional benefits that will surely draw more breweries into the realm of cans.

There’s a cost advantage: “Cans are cheaper to buy than bottles, and there’s a shipping savings, since you can get more cans per pallet,” shares Melis. Cans may also be a better choice for the environment, as they’re more easily recyclable and are lighter to ship, thereby demanding less fossil fuels. (An article in the January 2010 issue of MBG hashed out the glass vs. aluminum question from an environmental perspective.)

With all the arguments for canning beer, you may wonder why this trend is only really catching on now. Tom Duex, head brewer at the U.P.’s Keweenaw Brewing Company in Houghton, sheds light on that question. “What people probably don’t realize is that this technology is something that just recently became available for a brewery of our size,” he explains. At present, Keweenaw BC brews about 5,500 bbl a year, with about 90 percent of that staying in-state. “It’s relatively new. But as the technology grows, brewers are in agreement that you’re going to see craft beer in cans more and more.”

Canning their beer since they started brewing in 2004, Keweenaw BC has since expanded their canning line. They now offer five of their beers in cans, the fifth variety just rolling out at the end of January of this year. My first introduction to a flavorful microbrew in a can was Lift Bridge Brown Ale from Keweenaw BC, enjoyed on a camping trip near Marquette. This detail reveals yet another benefit of cans: portability.

“I’m not a fan of lugging glass around,” says Duex. “You can easily take cans more places, like the beach, or on outdoor activities like skiing, snowshoeing, golfing or boating.”

Keweenaw BC was the first Michigan brewery to can, but they didn’t remain the only one for long. Bell’s Brewery took advantage of the can’s accommodating nature in 2005, when they released their first 5-liter mini-keg.

After 12 years of offering their beers exclusively at their brewpub, Rochester Mills Beer Co. of Rochester introduced their first canned beer for distribution, Cornerstone IPA, in mid-summer 2010. Since 2008, they’ve had their Lazy Daze Lager available in cans at their pub. Once again, fresher beer, portability and superiority to glass in terms of being recyclable were all behind the decision to can. And, Rochester Mills set itself apart from bottled microbrews in yet another way: their new cans are a full 16 ounces. “We wanted to give you a full pint, just like we do at the brewpub,” explains head brewer Eric Briggeman, who oversees the brewing of Cornerstone IPA at MillKingIt Productions in Royal Oak, where the beer is brewed under contract.

MillKingIt Productions will soon also release Rochester Mills’ Milkshake Stout. In the meantime, their own Axl Pale American-style pale ale was available in a can in 2010, and their Brik Irish-style red ale is now available as well; both are sold in 16-ounce containers.

This year alone will see at least three other Michigan breweries moving into the world of cans. Arcadia Brewing Company of Battle Creek will release their first canned brew in April, followed by a second in September. Arcadia’s beers are currently available in bottles; their new canning line is part of an ongoing brewery-wide expansion. After observing the emerging trend, Arcadia elected to make the investment in this movement in December 2010, “before it really took off in the Midwest,” says founder and president Tim Suprise. “We’ve identified a number of niche market opportunities in the short term, and remain confident that broader market potential will develop as more products gain entry.”

It seems they won’t have long to wait. Grand Rapids’ newest brewery, Brewery Vivant, will release their Belgian-style brews in cans this spring. Sustainability is a core part of Brewery Vivant’s mission, and this factor in particular made cans an attractive choice over bottles. And finally, Atwater Block Brewery of Detroit also has plans to can in the near future.

With all the advantages of canning and the technology becoming increasingly available, only a few drawbacks remain; potential “glass snobbery” isn’t really one of them. “Some distributors were skeptical about how well it would be received by the general public, but we’ve had nothing but positive responses,” says Duex, a sentiment echoed by Oskar Blues and Rochester Mills representatives. “The hesitancy to pay for and try a high-end craft beer in a can is a temporary hurdle,” confirms Melis.

For those worried about a potential “can taste” to their beer, brewers involved in this process stress the fact that modern practices ensure the brew never actually comes in contact with the metal itself. “All cans are lined with micro-resin,” Duex explains. “The beer never touches aluminum.” That said, it’s always a good idea to pour a quality craft beer, whether it’s in a can or a bottle, into a glass to fully enjoy the aroma. “You want to let that baby breathe!” remarks Melis.

One valid potential obstacle to distributing in cans is the start-up cost. “There’s an initial large investment, more than a bottling line would be,” shares Duex. “Canning manufacturers also make a commitment to a large amount of empties, but in all, we have no regrets.”

Craft beer in a can isn’t exactly new, but it is a movement that’s only beginning to take hold in Michigan. Yet all indications point to the fact that the sight of local microbrews in cans sharing shelf-space with the venerated bottle will soon be commonplace. “We’re happy to be distributing beer in an arguably superior vessel,” concludes Duex. There’s no turning back now that the word is out: “You can have great beer in a can.”

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