The choice between drinking beer from a can versus drinking from a bottle has been a distinguishing feature in the beer debate for nearly a century, almost as a distinct indicator about taste and class as choosing to wear cut-off blue jean shorts or Brooks Brother slacks.
But with gathering momentum, that attitude has shifted over the past decade as cans have been noticeably upwardly mobile, and elbowing into the world of microbeers.
In 2002, Oskar Blues, a funky and good-spirited brew-pub smack between Denver and Fort Collins, released Dale's Pale Ale in (gasp!) cans, a classic and patriotic looking blue can, rimmed by a red ribbon and a bold white shield. It was the first U.S. microbrewery to offer a craft beer only in cans.
A decade later, the U.S. Beer Institute reported that a slim majority of Americans—53 percent—were drinking beer from cans, as opposed to 48 percent in 2003. At first blush, that swing does not seem like a massive shift, yet this number does not include that only 36 percent of Americans drink their beer from bottles, with the remaining 11 percent drawing from kegs. Also, considering that microbrews only constitute six percent of the entire beer market, the numbers are significant, as are the numbers of microbreweries that have devoted their product to cans, with nearly 100 different styles available in cans, from ambers to sours.
By 2013, nearly every beer magazine and industry blogger was mentioning canning as a hot trend, as coast-to-coast, from big boy breweries like Boston's Sam Adams and California's Sierra Nevada, the trend had grabbed hold at roughly one-eighth of the 2,500 craft brewers in the country, 200 alone canning their IPAs. Last summer, Whole Foods reported that its sales of canned beer surged by 30 percent during the previous 12 months.
In Bend, Worthy and GoodLife are both canning their own beer, and 10 Barrel offers "pub beer" in a charmingly simple generic black-and-white can.
"We have always been fans of beer in a can," said Ty Barnett, co-owner of GoodLife. "I think it was Oskar Blues Imperial Stout 'Ten Fidy' that was a wow moment. That was the beer we would give to people to convince them that beer in a can doesn't suck. Canning beer has always been a part of our business plan. We just didn't think we would start canning by year two."
As the trend moves forward, several breweries are even re-inventing the can. Over the past two years, Sam Adams dedicated $1 million to researching a new can. Last year, they released the "Sam Can," with a bigger opening and extended lip for a more full pour. And a brewer in eastern Pennsylvania, Sly Fox, released a can with their "360 lid"—essentially a top that peels off completely and offers beer as if drinking from a pint glass.
And there are good, scientific and sustainability reasons for the trend to cans. For starters, beers in cans chill faster and also last longer. Without UV to fade hops and more firmly locked against oxygen, the beer's taste is more secure than beer in a bottle.
In a turn of fate, where usually trends move from the fringes to the mainstream, beer canning is benefitting from macro-breweries like Coors, who have been perfecting canning for decades. While born-on-dates and frost-liners may seem like the hype of Super Bowl ads, in fact, technology for cans has matured remarkably in the past 25 years, just in time to pick up mircobrews changing attitudes. Contemporary aluminum cans, for example, feature water-based polymer linings that buffer any contact between the beer and metal—and, thereby, protect the taste from any tinny tinges. Some brewers liken a can to a mini-keg, which, in turn, delivers draft-tasting beer.
The sustainability factor is also important: For starters, breweries can stack some 30 percent more cans into a truck, as opposed to bottles, and cans are about half the weight of bottles; all of which equates to lower shipping costs and reduced carbon footprints.
"Cans are also lighter, more cost effective and recyclable," adds GoodLife's Barnett. "We can ship more cases to our distributors per truckload than bottles, saving time and money. Plus, cans are outdoor friendly, great for the river, golf courses, hikes, camping, and lakes—everything great about Central Oregon."