Craft beer goes retro
In 2002, a tiny, relatively unknown brewery in Colorado took steps that many craft beer drinkers at the time considered heresy: Oskar Blues canned their beers. Not only did they can their beers, but they only canned their beers. No bottles, just cans. At the time, there was a nasty connotation associated with canned beers. Canned beers meant cheap American macro-lagers with tinny aftertastes. The craft brew community shook its collective head: One simply did not can a serious craft beer.
Over the past 11 years, the better beer community has been doing a collective facepalm. Turns out, Oskar Blues was way ahead of its time. What the Oskar Blues folks knew, and what the rest of the craft beer world eventually discovered, was that canned beer had come a long way from its metallic forefathers. The big change? New materials used to line the cans prevented the metal from leaching into the beer and destroying the beery goodness.
Today, according to the latest Brewer’s Association numbers, there are more than 2,300 craft breweries in the United States. Of them, 305 breweries have at least one of their beers available in cans, according to Craftcans.com, the leading advocacy site on canned craft beers. That means a full 13 percent of American craft breweries are canning their beer, with the bulk of that increase coming in the past three years. And the best part is that the numbers continue to rise on a monthly basis. Quite a difference 11 years makes.
So why the sudden interest in canned craft beers? I put this question to Kenny McNutt, Jeff Hunt and Brady Duncan, the folks at MadTree Brewing. MadTree opened earlier this year in Cincinnati and sports a can-only lineup. McNutt cited three reasons: “Beer quality, environment and flexibility.” One needs only to open a canned IPA to understand how packaging helps protect the beer. There is an immediate burst of fresh hops that doesn’t always come from a bottle. As McNutt explained, “Two detriments to beer are light and oxygen. Regardless of how dark the glass is, UV light can penetrate the vessel, reacting with the hops and creating a skunky flavor. Also, my understanding is that there is less chance of oxygen pickup in a can which reduces the chances of oxidative staling giving a stale cardboard flavor.”
Environmentally-conscious beer drinkers also like canned beers because of the ease in recycling the aluminum cans. As McNutt noted, “Aluminum is infinitely recyclable and more likely than glass to be recycled.” Brewers like canning beers because the lighter cans weigh much less than bulky glass bottles, therefore cutting down on shipping costs and saving fuel. However, as a recent blog post on New Belgium Brewery’s site explained, both glass and cans have environmental pros and cons – the bauxite used to make aluminum is much more damaging to mine than the sand used to make glass, but once it is in circulation, aluminum is easier to reuse.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the adoption of canned beer, canned craft beer finds advocates because of its flexibility. As McNutt noted, ”Cans are also allowed in places and easier to take places than glass. For hiking, boating, biking, camping, etc., a can is much simpler and lighter to pack it in and pack it out.”
So, for a lot of beer drinkers, craft beer in cans ties in nicely to an active outdoor lifestyle. I can attest to this personally. When I backpack with my friends, we have a first night ritual. We freeze steaks the night before, and then we bring a few canned craft beers in our packs nestled against the frozen meat. As the meat defrosts, the beer chills. By the time we get to camp, we have cold beers and are ready to grill some juicy steaks over the fire. Sure, the beer and steaks add a bit of weight, but the frothy brew and grilled meat at the end of that first day are well worth the effort.
Next time you go outdoors and want to take a craft beer with you, think cans. There are hundreds of canned craft beers available, with a huge selection here in Dayton. Here are a few recommendations to get you started:
MadTree Brewing’s PsycHOPathy IPA (Cincinnati): Heading to a Reds game? Pick up this citrusy, piney hop treat at Great American Ball Park. If you are supporting the home team, what better way than to drink local?
Finch’s Beer Company’s Threadless IPA (Chicago): Get a tallboy of this easy drinking IPA. At six percent ABV, it won’t knock you on your butt, but it will knock the clutter off of your tastebuds.
Revolution Brewing’s Eugene Porter (Chicago): This well-crafted porter out of the Windy City is named after Eugene V. Debs, union leader and revolutionary. Pair the rich chocolate malts in this beer with s’mores around a campfire.
Oskar Blues Ten FIDY Imperial Stout (Colorado): Oskar Blues was first to the canning revolution with Dale’s Pale Ale, but Ten FIDY is the rock star of the line-up. This giant imperial stout packs a 10.5 percent ABV punch (thus the name), but is pure easy drinking.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@daytoncitypaper.com.