At Liquor World in Porter Square, where the shopping crowd leans heavily toward students and young professionals, it’s not surprising that craft beers are in increasingly high demand this summer. What is surprising is that canned craft beers are flying off the shelves in record numbers.
“The 12-packs of cans are selling twice as quickly as bottles,” says the store’s beer buyer, Todd Perry. “Last summer, they sold well, but there weren’t as many canned varieties on the market in Massachusetts. This summer, it’s much more pronounced.”
Since domestic craft brewing reemerged in the 1980s, we have come to associate our craft beers with bottles and the gravitas that they confer. But recently canning has taken off in the craft world, and beer drinkers have begun to accept that cans are no longer just for Old Milwaukee and other standard, backyard beers that their grandparents or college friends drank.
A confluence of technological innovations and cultural shifts has allowed the canned craft brew to come into its own, and consumers have had decades to loosen their association between cans and cheap, mass-produced domestic beers. But the original popular conception of the can may also have contributed to its comeback. “[Cans] have a blue-collar image, at least in the U.S., and many authenticity-craving hipsters take that very seriously,” wrote David Kiefaber in Adweek, an advertising trade magazine.
The Brewers Association, a trade group, defines craft breweries as “small, independent, traditional” breweries with “an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.”
A decade ago, the only craft brewery that offered canned beer was Oskar Blues in Lyons, Colo. Now, according to the CraftCans.com Canned Beer Database, over 300 breweries produce canned options. In 2012, California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which other breweries often look to as a gold standard for best practices in the industry, installed a canning line, and New England breweries followed suit. (Sierra’s Pale Ale is the second-best selling craft beer in the county, surpassed only by Sam Adams Boston Lager.)
Jim Koch, founder and owner of Boston Beer Co., which makes Sam Adams, long resisted cans. But earlier this year, after a million-dollar investment in canning research, Koch unfurled the “Sam Can,” with a specially shaped lip designed to improve the drinking experience. Koch decided to make the patent-pending design available to other craft breweries free of charge.
“As a craft brewer, we are very supportive of our community and always happy to see other brewers pushing boundaries and succeeding,” Koch wrote in an e-mail. “Considering craft beer is only 6 percent of the beer market, we all benefit from growing together.”
In March, Harpoon, another prominent Boston craft brewery, installed a $2.3 million canning production line that can fill 250 cans a minute.
On a recent evening, the new canning operation was in full swing at the South Boston brewery, despite a few glitches that had slowed down production earlier in the day. Hundreds of cans, their tops not yet in place, swarmed down a broad conveyor belt, into a chamber that cleaned, filled, and closed them. Workers scrambled to tend to the machines and keep the process running smoothly. Rich aromas of malt and hops filled the air, along with the smell of pumpkin, a sign that the production of an autumn seasonal brew was underway.
“For three years, we outsourced our canning,” says Rich Doyle, who cofounded Harpoon in 1986. “If you’re going to put in an expensive canning line, you want to first make sure that there’s enough of a market out there that it will be worth it.”
Cans, says the brewer, offer numerous advantages over bottles, such as a longer shelf life. Glass can cause “skunking,” a pronounced smell and taste that bottled beers develop over time as UV light reacts with hop-derived molecules in the beer.
Cans are also more practical. “If I’m going for a hike or a run, am I going to bring bottles that could break in my backpack?” Doyle asks. “If I’m going on a boat, I don’t want glass on deck. If I’m going to any concert or sports venue, glass isn’t allowed. Cans fit better in my fridge. They’re easier to recycle. There are so many occasions where I want a can.”
But in the early days of the craft brewing boom, cans were less appealing to breweries because a can implied cheap, while a bottle signaled a premium product. “Twenty-six years ago,” Doyle says, “when I got into the business, people would say, ‘Hey, you’re a local beer, why should we pay as much for you as we pay for an import?’”
Bottles helped convince customers they were getting more than just an overpriced version of regular old domestic beer. “Now, there’s a generation that grew up with the craft beer,” Doyle says. “Great beer is made in America at small, local breweries. Now we accept that — so let’s go for utility.”
The advantages of cans are not limited to consumers. They are less expensive to ship and easier for retailers to stock.
Brewers have long understood the practicality of canning, especially since the development of polymer linings that prevent any hints of metallic taste. But other factors have held small companies back: cans’ (swiftly receding) image problem, and the often-prohibitive initial expense of acquiring canning equipment.
In October 2012, Bill Heaton and his wife, Christine, founded Big Elm Brewing in Sheffield. They only distribute to surrounding towns (you cannot find their beer in Boston). Recently they hired their first employee. “Cans are the best package. In the next five to 10 years, we will see more canned than bottled beer,” Heaton says. “We bought a canning line from Wild Goose Engineering, which is the only company in the US that produces small canning lines that are affordable for small breweries.”
Wild Goose has sold 83 such canning lines since the small Colorado company began producing them three years ago. “I think it would be shortsighted if I were not to acknowledge that craft brewers might have done a little damage in some of their initial marketing practices,” says Roger Walz, a “beer ambassador” at Wild Goose, in reference to the widespread use of bottles in the industry. “One of the most fantastic things about craft breweries,” he adds, “is that instead of refusing to change, there is an overall ability to change easily. The camaraderie and the feeling of community has helped.”
On Beeradvocate.com, the leading online hangout for passionate beer geeks, “Heady Topper” Double I.P.A. from Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury, Vt., is the current highest-ranked user favorite. Jennifer Kimmich, who cofounded the brewery in 2011, says cans were always her preference. “It’s about making it accessible — getting away from the ‘winification’ of beer,” she says. “If you’re outside, it’s great because no sunlight ever gets in and interacts with the hops.” Heady Topper, which is only available in Vermont, has a ring of text around the top of each can commanding: “Drink from the can!”
Last spring, Wachusett Brewing Co. in Westminster bought a high-end canning line from Coca-Cola. The brewery now has the ability to produce 800 cans a minute, although it is not yet operating anywhere near that capacity.
“We still have a long way to go,” says T.J. Morse, a marketing and account manager at Wachusett. “In trying to separate ourselves from the Buds and the Millers and the Coors, in saying ‘This is a better beer and it’s in a better package,’ we put a doubled-edged sword to ourselves 20 or 25 years ago, when we were trying to convince people to try something different. Now we have to convince them things have changed — that cans are best.”