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With some tweaks, cans make comeback in craft beer

Brewmaster Brian O’Reilly holds a can of Helles Golden Lager with a 360 Lid as he poses for a portrait at Sly Fox Brewing Co. in Pottstown, Pa.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Brewmaster Brian O’Reilly holds a can of Helles Golden Lager with a 360 Lid as he poses for a portrait at Sly Fox Brewing Co. in Pottstown, Pa.

RICHMOND — Nearly 80 years ago, Richmond revolutionized the beer world. For it was in this Southern city in 1935 that canned beer — complete with how-to instructions — was first sold.

Krueger’s Cream Ale and its punch-top can became an instant hit, propelling the humble beer can to iconic status. That is, until Americans returned to bottles and the beloved craft brews they contained, a cultural turn that left canned beer looking decidedly low-brow.

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But more recently, craft brewers rediscovered cans, realizing they weren’t just retro-cool, but with a few tweaks might even be able to kick bottles in the can. Welcome to the beer can revolution. Technology again is transforming how Americans drink beer.

Today, Budweiser sells a bow tie-shaped can that mirrors its iconic logo, Miller Lite sports a punch-top can, drinkers know their Coors Light is cold when the mountains on the can turn blue, Sam Adams Boston Lager comes in cans designed to improve the taste, and Sly Fox Brewing Co. sells beer in ‘‘topless’’ cans designed to turn into cups when opened.

‘‘It’s not your father’s beer can anymore,’’ says Jim Koch, founder and chairman of Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams.

Craft brewers and craft beer drinkers are coming around to cans. More affordable supplies and canning equipment are helping. In 2002, just one craft brewery was using cans. Now, about 300 breweries offer close to 1,000 beers in cans, according to CraftCans.com, which tracks the revolution.

‘‘Craft beer in cans is becoming more mainstream each and every day,’’ says Brian Thiel, regional sales manager with the packaging company Crown Holdings. ‘‘The stigma that has existed continues to get lifted.’’

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Koch, a self-proclaimed purist, at first ‘‘stubbornly resisted’’ putting Sam Adams in cans. But after spending more than two years and $1 million developing a couple of dozen prototypes, the ‘‘Sam Can’’ was born. Koch says that with a bigger lid and a more defined lip, the redesigned can forces your mouth open more and puts your nose closer to the opening, creating a better flavor experience.

It’s ‘‘not going to make the angels sing when you drink it,’’ says Koch, who is allowing other craft breweries to use the can. ‘‘But my experience with Sam Adams since I started it in my kitchen is that slight but noticeable improvements constantly and repeated over 30 years makes a great beer.’’

Sly Fox decided to go all the way and blew the lid off with its cans — literally. In April, the Pennsylvania brewery began selling Helles Golden Lager in cans with a peel-off top (think soup can). While litter laws prevent it from being sold in all states, the can is getting noticed. The brewery sells its flagship Pikeland Pils in the same cans exclusively at Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies.

While many of the innovations tout a better drinking experience, there is a marketing element to it, too.

‘‘What’s next may be cool, it may be setting themselves apart. But there is a point where it becomes gimmicky,” Thiel said.

Koch agrees: ‘‘If it doesn’t make the beer taste better, then don’t do it just to get noticed,’’ he said.

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