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Aug 2011

HOPHEAD Takes A Closer Look At The Bottle Vs. Can Debate

We’ve been saying it for years. You might remember the old Narragansett line that said, “Straight from the barrel taste in bottle, can or tap it’s great.” Well here’s a great article that sheds some light on this debate.

HOPHEAD: Some craft brewers shift from bottle to can

By MARC FIGUEROA For the North County Times | Posted: Thursday, August 4, 2011 12:00 am

To prove his point, sometimes Garrett Marrero tells a little white lie to his customers.

The owner of Maui Brewing Co., who offers his beer from a draft and a can, says some customers demand only draft beer because they don’t care for the taste of canned beer.

So what does he do? He retreats, discreetly pours the canned beer into a glass and tells them it’s fresh from the tap. When they nod in approval, he comes clean.

“I’ve never had one person be able to tell a can from a draft,” said Marrero, a 1996 Poway High grad who opened the Hawaii craft brewery in 2005. “As long as it’s the same batch, same beer, you will never be able to tell the difference. Once they try it, they love the can. They don’t care.

“It’s as simple as tasting it.”

Born from enthusiastic home brewers with easy access to reusable bottles, the craft beer industry has primarily served its suds in bottles. Cans, for the most part, are for the macrobreweries, the budget-beer producers who cook up millions of barrels a year of the fizzy yellow stuff.

But times are changing.

Seven years ago, Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado became the first craft brewer to produce beer in a can. Today there are more than 50, according to the Brewers Association. It’s still a small fraction of the industry, but when you see respected breweries such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Avery dabbling in canning, it indicates a philosophical shift among some smaller brewers.

Beer’s three worst enemies are heat, light and air, so most brewers agree that the modern aluminum can protects the beer better than a bottle. But the biggest battle brewers fight is not the can itself, but the stigma that comes with it.

Inferior quality has long been associated with canned beer, not the right image for craft brewers, who pride themselves on serving up a taste for the more sophisticated palate.

“The stigma exists because beer being put into cans was junk beer, not because the can was junk,” Marrero said. “It all has to do with what you put in the can, not the package itself.

“Keystone, Coors, Bud, all they do is advertise why you should drink their beer. Miller tells you it tastes great, another tells you it’s less filling, all the while some big-breasted blonde is trying to convince you that if you drink it, she’s going to go to bed with you. We don’t do that in (the) craft beer (industry). We say, ‘Hey, the beer’s good. Drink it.'”

For Marrero, persuading people that the can has nothing to do with the quality is a constant battle. But it’s one he’s winning, as his brewery is projected to produce more than 18,000 barrels this year, a far cry from the 400 that Maui did only four years ago.

“You have to overcome the buyer’s fear of spending money on something that they already think might not be great, and the can presents that quandary,” he said.

No San Diego brewery is canning beer locally —- Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido has not ruled it out, but there are no plans in the works —- although some are discussing the possibility, including Pizza Port. Jeff Bagby, the head brewer at Pizza Port Carlsbad, said there are no plans for cans right now, but it could be in the company’s future.

“The people that are canning in the craft beer industry are changing (the stigma) by putting more exotic IPAs and imperial stouts in a can,” he said.

“The can is always going to be perceived as a cheaper product because a can is cheaper to buy. A can isn’t as nice-looking as a bottle. But the beer that goes inside is made the same way, and when you pour it in a glass, you’re not going to get any real different taste or aroma.”

Wesley Keegan, who brews and cans his San Diego Tailgate Beer out of Minnesota, said one reason why more craft breweries aren’t canning is because of the cost. Canned beer requires different equipment from bottled beer and demands additional storage space.

“If you polled 30 brewers, I think every one of them would say they would want to be in cans,” said Keegan, who makes a Blonde Ale and a Hefeweizen.

“But they have leveraged themselves to a bottling line that cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. As the technology improves and brewers are able to diversify, I think many who can will start switching over to cans.”

Keegan, who said Tailgate Beer is now producing more in a month than it used to in a year, sees canned beer going in the direction of screwtop wine bottles, which has been that industry’s alternative to cork.

“People are realizing that it makes better sense,” he said. “It’s been scientifically proven that cans are the best vessel for beer. You can make it last longer.”

That’s not to say that bottles are bad for beer, as many dark beers are ripe for aging if stored properly —- Dogfish Head in Delaware brews a 120-minute Imperial India Pale Ale that it says can be aged “for a decade or so.”

“Cans are just better at protecting the beer,” Marrero said. “If a good beer is going into a bottle or can, it’s going to be a good beer one way or the other in the immediacy. As time goes on, you’re going to get more oxidized flavors and potential for light-struck beer.”

While the craft beer canning trend is not completely changing the face of the industry, it’s clear that bottles are no longer the only container of choice.

“I think it will always be a small part of the craft beer market,” Bagby said. “I don’t see it taking over bottles, especially with the high-end beers. I’d be amazingly surprised if we ever see barrel-aged beer in a can.

“It just doesn’t even sound right. You might have a few breweries who put their beer in cans and see how they do.”