Few people speak as passionately about the superiority of craft beer in a can—and why you should drink his beer directly from one—as The Alchemist Owner John Kimmich, maker of Heady Topper.
“The benefits of using a can for an IPA are well documented. We print it right on the side of the can,” he says. “It’s the perfect vessel for maintaining the quality of a beer like that.”
Kimmich lovingly describes the sensation of popping the top on a Heady Topper and enjoying the aroma as it bursts from the can and then enjoying that first fresh sip.
“Beer you pour into a glass is rapidly dying, but [in a can], even if you set it down for ten minutes, the beer is still sitting perfectly preserved under a layer of CO2,” he says. “It might take me an hour to drink a can of Heady, but I know that that last sip will be as good as the first. In a glass, that beer would be a shadow of its former self.”
Kimmich is not alone in his conviction. The advantages of aluminum cans for packaging craft beer have become widely known. The most often cited benefits include lower oxygen levels and protection from ultraviolet light; a lightweight, inexpensive material that’s readily recyclable; decreased breakage, and cost savings in weight, fuel, and space when shipping and distributing.
Cans reach a tipping point
Ever since Oskar Blues Brewery became the first American craft brewery to go all-in with cans in 2002, the momentum toward canned craft beer has continued to increase pace.
Buoyed in no small part by craft, cans reached a tipping point in 2014. The annual report on national domestic beer shipments from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) showed that cans grew 2 percent and comprised 55 percent of the total packaging segment in 2014 over the previous year, while bottles (a 1.8 percent decrease) and draft (a 0.4 percent decrease) both diminished as a percentage of combined domestic and import volumes. CraftCans.com, a website that tracks American craft brewers that package in cans, currently includes 544 brewers in its database that package at least one of its beers in cans.
Domestic sales also demonstrate consumers’ continued acceptance of canned craft beer. The Brewers Association reports that sales of canned six-packs were up 89 percent in 2014 compared to 14 percent growth of bottles.
Firestone Walker reacted to the trend when it introduced canned six-packs of three of its core beers—Union Jack, Easy Jack, and Pivo—in early 2015.
“We saw a trend among consumers [toward cans], and we wanted to make sure we had beers for them to drink,” says Firestone Walker Cofounder David Walker.
“Quality was one of the first elements we considered. We make some very elegant but not hugely robust hops-forward beers, and they survive better in cans if we’re going to ship them outside of California.”
Walker expects that about 15 percent of the brewery’s volume will go into cans this year. It’s a significant proportion and one that he expects will grow over time.
“It’s a long-term investment,” he says.
“Shortage is not a concern”
As more craft brewers invest in cans, however, there have been recent reports of a can shortage and manufacturers upping the size of minimum shipments. There’s also been some consolidation among the three major manufacturers—Ball Corporation, Rexam PLC, and Crown Holdings Incorporated—as Ball and Rexam announced a planned merger in late 2015.
While there have been some temporary restrictions on the availability of some sizes of cans, those limits have since been removed as—similar to many craft breweries—manufacturers add capacity and reorganize in order to better meet the growing demand. This is encouraging because the availability of more modestly sized canning lines, as well as options—such as mobile canning, co-packaging, or leasing a canning line—make packaging in cans a more affordable and attainable option for smaller craft brewers.
“Shortage is not a concern,” says Peter Love, founder of Cask Brewing Systems, which manufactures both manual and automatic canning lines.
Cask sells lines to many small- and medium-sized breweries that have been packaging in glass and are looking to introduce cans and expand distribution into new markets, he says, as well as many new breweries choosing to package only in cans. The size line a brewer chooses most often depends on projected volumes and their expectations for growth as well as on their financing, he says, although many are soon able to move up to a larger sized line.
“If you’re a startup, you don’t really know how your product is going to be received,” Love says. “But of course, as in life, some guys gamble bigger than others.”
Cans as fuel for growth
Lone Tree Brewing Co. in Lone Tree, Colorado, purchased a SAMS manual canning line from Cask, only to upgrade to a fully automatic ACS model about nine months later.
The manual machine “enabled us to enter that marketplace at a minimal investment risk,” says Lone Tree President John Winter, but canned sales “grew faster than we ever anticipated.”
Founded in late 2011, Lone Tree initially packaged only some of its specialty beers in 22-ounce bombers for distribution, which Winter says, “did not see a great deal of sales velocity.
“We recognized that, to continue our growth, we needed to be able to increase our production,” he says. “And that either comes in the form of 12-ounce bottles or 12-ounce cans as the primary distribution packing methods.”
Winter was at first concerned about how the lining in cans might adversely affect the beer, he says, but found that there have been numerous improvements in the water-based polymer coating over the years. In some cases, manufacturers will tailor the coating to a specific beer’s acid and pH levels, Winter says, as was the case with Lone Tree’s Peach Pale Ale.
Cans have also become a primary vehicle of Lone Tree’s recent growth strategy. The brewery recently upgraded from its original 7-barrel brewhouse to a 20-barrel brewhouse and purchased a grain silo and three additional 40-barrel fermentors. Winter says that Lone Tree brewed about 2,400 barrels in 2015 and anticipates producing about 4,000 barrels in 2016. The brewery plans to expand its distribution into Nebraska this year as well as provide more beer for its Colorado and Kansas markets.
“All of that came because of our original purchase of the Cask SAMS machine,” Winter says.
And about that gently used manual machine? Its sale speaks to the demand for canning lines throughout the craft-beer industry. A Lone Tree employee mentioned to an acquaintance opening up a brewery in New Jersey that Lone Tree was looking to sell the line, and that person purchased the canning line sight unseen.
Says Winter: “I never even placed a public announcement or made a phone call, and it was gone.”