Back in the mid-2000s, the Boston Beer Co., brewers of the Samuel Adams brand, issued a "Beer Drinker's Bill of Rights," which declared that "Beer shall be offered in bottles, not cans, so that no brew is jeopardized by the taste of metal." This year, the company released its flagship Boston Lager in aluminum cans nationwide (along with a Summer Ale in limited distribution). What changed?
Founder and brewer James Koch claimed that his company designed a new can that offers "a small but noticeably better drinking experience than the standard beer can. With the help of a sensory scientist who specializes in tasting beer — yes, such people do exist — we studied every aspect of the new can design, from how it could potentially impact the flavor of Samuel Adams Boston Lager to the ergonomics of how the beer flows from the can and hits the taste receptors on a drinker's tongue."
Cans have been just fine for New England Brewing Co., based in Woodbridge, which has canned the lion's share of its output since 2004 and developed a cult-like following among beer geeks, despite the packaging.
"Someone is eating a lot of crow," at Boston Beer Co., said Rob Leonard, an owner and brewer at New England Brewing. Leonard explained that cans are now coated with epoxy. "Beer is brewed, stored, aged and fermented in large aluminum vessels. The only time the beer isn't touching metal is in the can. The only way to taste metal is to eat the can," he said.
In another collision of form and function, the design on the new Sam Adams cans bears a marked resemblance to New England's Sea Hag IPA can, with a crooked red stripe down the side. Koch says Boston Lager has always featured a red ribbon on its label, but a side-by-side snapshot reveals an uncanny resemblance.
The amount of craft beer available in cans is growing, but figures are elusive. "In 2011, we estimated 3 percent of beer brewed by small and independent U.S. craft brewers was canned, and it has increased exponentially since then," said Julia Herz at the Brewers Association, a trade group representing small breweries.
"Cans are considered to be of somewhat lesser quality," said Kevin Neal, a manager at Amity Wine & Spirit Co. in New Haven. The changeover to cans by craft brewers, including Flying Dog, Brooklyn Brewery, Sierra Nevada, Blue Point and Samuel Adams "has a lot to do with summer. At the pool, the beach and on the boat, it's safer and they don't break if you drop them."
At many events where people tailgate, bottles are not allowed, Neal said, pointing to another new trend, the 24-ounce can, which is replacing the 40-ounce bottle made famous through rap lyrics.
A new brewing company, Two Roads in Stratford, decided to offer beer in cans from the get-go, in addition to bottles and kegs. "We wanted our brand to be a one-stop shop," said Brad Hittle, the brewery's CEO. "There's a litany of great beer coming in cans nowadays, and we wanted to let consumers make a choice."
Cans help prevent beer from getting skunked, he said, but the stigma goes back to the 1950s and '60s, when brewers and the glass industry attempted to convince the public about the inferiority of cans, made of steel back then rather than aluminum. Bringing a can to one's lips is a less-than-pleasant sensation, Hittle conceded; he still recommends pouring his wares into a glass.
Part of the stigma associated with cans dates back to the time when mass-produced beer came in cans and imports came in bottles, said Leonard. Yet cans are far superior, he insisted, since "They don't let in any air or light, which are the enemies of beer. They're easier to stack in the fridge or cooler, and they're lighter weight and better for the environment."
To prove his point, he bends over and moves a palette with 8,000 empty cans, sans lids, by hand. "Aluminum is a pure element that can be recycled an infinite number of times; it takes a lot of energy to recycle glass," he said. Bottles also weigh down delivery trucks.
When New England Brewing began, they put their beer in kegs. Bottles took up too much storage space, and expenses like six-pack carriers and labels added up. Then they learned that the Oskar Blues brewery in Colorado had begun canning its popular Dale's Pale Ale, and Leonard decided to use aluminum for New England Brewing's standard brews, though the brewery continues to bottle around 200 cases of its barrel-aged offerings.
That will change. In June, they introduced automated canning line that will squeeze jobs that once took three days to complete into an afternoon. They are also adding three more fermenters and plan to double capacity. In addition, for their limited-edition offerings, they will likely use 16-ounce cans, which come blank and are adorned with a shrink sleeve label. "This could be the end of bottles altogether," said Leonard.
The company clearly has a lot of fun taking advantage of the expanded-design real estate offered by cans over bottles. The four main brews, Sea Hag IPA, Elm City Pilsner, Gandhi-Bot Double IPA and 668 Neighbor of the Beast, a Belgian style golden ale, have always been canned.
The 668 offering lampoons the devil beers issued by craft brewers, playing on the 666 mark of the beast as if it were a street address. The neighbor is depicted as an elderly gentleman retrieving a newspaper from his driveway.
Sometimes, they push things, like when the Star Wars storm-trooper helmet on their Imperial Stout Trooper label elicited a cease and desist letter from the George Lucas empire. No worries: they just slapped Groucho Marx glasses (with eyebrows and a fake nose) over the goggles.
The chief issue for New England Brewing has been educating consumers about the benefits of cans. "It's what's inside the can that is most important," said Leonard. "The only thing a bottle is good for is a bar fight."