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Once frowned upon by beer snobs, cans are becoming the vessel of choice for craft brewers

Backcountry Brewing has committed exclusively to cans for its packaged product as a core part of its business plan.

Since opening its doors 2½ years ago, the Exchange Brewery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., distinguished itself with an eye-catching packaging format, a 750-millilitre, black, Italian-style sparkling-wine bottle. Robin Ridesic, the craft operation’s owner and chief executive officer, says her beers are made using pricy ingredients and are designed to accompany a meal, even to improve in the cellar. The heavy, elegantly curved bottle seemed apt. “We want that experience of sharing, an experience similar to what you have with wine, where you pair it with food and have the bottle on the table,” she said.

As of last month, though, those containers have been joined by some unlikely company in the brewery’s retail space: cans. When Ridesic launched two new wheat beers for summer, a Berliner weisse and a hefeweizen, she turned not to glass but to aluminum. Cans, she said, seemed like a better fit for a duo of refreshing, lower-alcohol styles that would likely be consumed more casually in the outdoors.

With that move, the Exchange Brewery is also riding a major wave in the craft-beer industry. Frowned upon for decades by beer snobs, the proletarian can once closely associated with global megabrands has increasingly become the vessel of choice for small, independent producers.

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“Historically it was the macro brews, it was the Coors and the Buds of the world, but now we’re seeing craft brewers who are saying, ‘You know what? We can put a better beer in a can but still appeal to that same casual usage occasion,’ ” Ridesic said.

In the trend-setting U.S. market, cans in the craft-beer segment grew to 28.5 per cent of packaged production last year, up from about 12 per cent in 2012, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, which represents more than 4,000 small and independent producers.

“Increasingly, a lot of the growth in the market is coming from the smallest brewers,” said Bart Watson, chief economist for the trade group. “And we’re seeing more of the smaller brewers go initially heavily into cans, which certainly wasn’t the case a few years ago.”

In Canada, cans advanced by 28 per cent between 2013 and 2017 versus a decline of 31 per cent for bottles in the same period, according to Luke Harford, president of Beer Canada, a trade association. Much of that growth, he added, has occurred east of Manitoba, where the format was less entrenched than in the West. Nationwide, cans now represent 60 per cent of beer sales by volume versus 46 per cent in 2013 (though Beer Canada’s numbers include big producers and imports as well as small players).

Elsewhere in the craft world, from Europe to South America to Australia, aluminum is on a roll. In Britain, where the metal cylinders go by the slang term “tinnies,” sales of craft beer in cans shot up 327 per cent between January, 2017 and August, 2017, according to market tracker Nielsen. Cans in Britain now represent a quarter of craft beer sold at retail.

Credit much more than barbecue-and-picnic “usage occasions” for the sea change. Producers list a litany of other advantages that have struck a chord with millennials in particular, including, not least, the extra space on cans for punchy graphics, which also offer brewers a point of differentiation in the crowded craft-beer market. Some, playing the virtue card, boast that metal is infinitely recyclable and that lightweight aluminum results in a smaller carbon footprint as beer gets trucked to market.

Arguably most compelling of all is flavour, a point that might surprise die-hard bottle fans illogically afraid of a “metallic” taste. “Beer in cans will stay fresher for 30 more days than in a bottle,” said Ben Reeder, a co-founder and marketing manager of Backcountry Brewing, a 14-month-old producer in Squamish, B.C., which committed exclusively to cans for its packaged product as a core part of its business plan. That consideration can be especially important for heavily hopped styles such as trendy India pale ales, which quickly lose their aromatic appeal.

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Backcountry Brewing uses cans in part because beer stays fresher in them compared with bottles.

Reeder adds that canning lines make it possible to fill to the brim with virtually no air gap, protecting against the ravages of oxidation. And metal, being opaque, is the perfect sunblock for ultraviolet light, another flavour foe.

Advantages aside, the boom likely would not have occurred without the rise of an enabling technology, the microcanning line. Smaller systems have suddenly rendered affordable a tool previously available only to industrial giants.

Microcanning’s self-proclaimed inventor is Cask Brewing Systems of Calgary, which has installed more than 875 lines in 46 countries, including the United States, Australia, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Bolivia. Many companies now also operate mobile canning lines, permitting tiny breweries, such as the Exchange, to set up for a day to package small batches without having to invest in permanent equipment.

In the craft industry, perhaps no brewery has done more to put the can on a pedestal than one of Cask’s early customers, the revered Oskar Blues Brewery of Colorado. Ironically, that state also is home to Coors, the multinational brand that introduced the 100-per-cent recyclable all-aluminum two-piece can in 1959, later famously dubbed the “silver bullet.” In 2002, Oskar Blues launched what it calls “the original craft beer in a can,” a heavily hopped potation named Dale’s Pale Ale. Three years later that beer was chosen as the best of 24 American pale ales by a New York Times tasting panel, vying against other U.S. offerings packaged in bottles, some of which were dismissed as less than fresh.

Then in 2003, a Vermont brewpub called the Alchemist was born, and it would take the can manifesto to a new, and controversial, extreme. The establishment, located in the village of Waterbury, better known as the home of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, soon blossomed into a full-scale cult brewery on the strength of a hop monster called Heady Topper, now widely ranked among the best beers in North America.

In a claim often dismissed by beer geeks and hipster brewers as nothing but shrewd marketing, Alchemist founders John and Jen Kimmich insist Heady Topper tastes better when sipped, yes, straight from the pop top. Indeed, around the rim of every tallboy they produce is a bold commandment: “Drink from the can!”

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Amusingly, even some fine-dining restaurants in Vermont have bought in, as I discovered on a recent visit to an upscale Waterbury establishment called Michael’s on the Hill before making my pilgrimage to the Alchemist, where I loaded up the trunk with a couple of cases of fine brew. Spotting Heady Topper on the restaurant’s drinks list, I placed my order. Then it came, a single can, no stemware, carried to the table on a tray, eventually set before me on the crisp white tablecloth.

Half expecting to be scolded by the waitress, I asked if, as a wine nerd, I might be permitted to have a clean glass for comparison tasting’s sake. She acquiesced. “If you want one, I’ll bring you one.”

Dutifully, I alternated, sipping from the can and from the fine, tulip-shaped glass. The beer was superb, so mind-bendingly and oddly herbal that I flashed back to the cannabis cloud of a 1978 Eric Clapton concert at Maple Leaf Gardens.

You know what? Heady Topper tasted better from the can.

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