For decades, the pffsst sound that comes from popping open a can of beer usually meant the drinker was about to imbibe a mass-produced brew like Budweiser or Pabst Blue Ribbon. Higher-priced craft beers, made in small batches for those seeking something outside the mainstream, were available in bottles only.
But a growing number of craft beers, including some made in Wisconsin, is being sold in cans, as brewers look to cut packaging and delivery costs, while finding a place at outdoor parties and other events where cans are preferred to glass bottles.
"It's just a convenient package," said Jeff Hamilton, president of Glendale-based Sprecher Brewing Co. Sprecher is among Wisconsin's oldest craft brewers, defined by the trade group Brewers Association as small, independent companies that use traditional brewing methods.
Sprecher this month becomes the latest Wisconsin craft brewer to sell its beer in cans, with its Special Amber brand.
That comes one year after Milwaukee Brewing Co. began selling two of its brands, Louie's Demise and Flaming Damsel, in cans. Others selling canned craft beer include Stevens Point Brewery, which has begun putting some of its specialty brews in cans, and Middleton-based Capital Brewery Co. -- Wisconsin's second- and third-largest craft brewers behind No. 1 New Glarus Brewing Co., which does not sell its beer in cans.
"We're really big on cans. We love them," said Jim McCabe, Milwaukee Brewing president. His company this summer plans to launch two new brands in cans only: Godzilla, an Asian-spiced wheat beer, and Monkey Paw, an English-style ale.
By selling beer in cans, craft brewers reach certain venues -- such as golf courses and baseball stadiums -- where glass bottles are discouraged, or even banned. Canned beer appeals to drinkers going to outdoor events, like tailgating and picnics.
Also, convenience stores sell most of their beverages in cans or plastic bottles, not glass bottles, Hamilton said. That opens up a new sales channel for packaged craft beer, which is typically sold through liquor stores and supermarkets.
Finally, canned beer is cheaper to package and ship than bottled beer. Aluminum is a lighter material, and a can amounts to one piece of packaging. With a bottle, a cap is added, and a label is attached, said Carl Nolen, Capital Brewery president.
Capital's packaging and shipping costs for canned beer are about half the costs for bottled beer, Nolen said.
The price of canned beer reflects those cost savings.
At Milwaukee-area Pick 'n Save supermarkets, Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy was recently selling at $9.69 for a 12-pack of cans, compared to $11.79 for bottles. (Beers made by Chippewa Falls-based Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. are considered craft brews by some drinkers, but the company's ownership by MillerCoors LLC means it doesn't meet the Brewers Association's definition of craft).
52 percent sold in cans
Still, despite the advantages, only 3 percent of the nation's craft beer was sold in cans in 2010, according to the Brewers Association. Within the overall market, which includes mass-produced brands such as Bud Light and Miller Lite, 52% of beer is sold in cans, according to The Beer Institute.
Canned beer is viewed by some craft brew fans as inferior to bottled beer, McCabe said. But that reflects perception, and not reality, he and other brewers say.
One complaint is that cans supposedly add a metallic taste to beer.
But that view may be linked to people drinking beer directly from a can, which reduces the drinker's sense of smell of the beer's aroma -- which affects the taste, McCabe said. If possible, drinkers should pour the can of beer into a glass, he said. McCabe acknowledged that most people who drink canned beer aren't used to that routine.
"You don't typically see people take a tall boy of Pabst and pour it out," said McCabe.
Also, beer cans use a coating to eliminate metallic flavors, according to the website craftcans.com, which touts canned craft beer.
Brewers say cans do a better job than bottles in preserving the freshness of beer.
That's because cans completely block out light, which can hurt the taste of beer, said Joe Martino, operating partner at Stevens Point Brewery. Even colored glass allows some light to penetrate the bottle.
Also, cans are sealed tighter than bottles, which can allow oxygen to seep in through the attached caps, said Hamilton.
More going with cans
Hamilton says most craft brewers have largely stuck to bottles in part because the companies start small, and often buy used equipment. Used bottling lines, he said, are easier to find than used canning lines.
But a growing number of craft brewers are putting their products in cans, with that count reaching around 120 of the nation's 1,759 craft brewers, says craftcans.com. The list includes some of the nation's better known craft brewers, such as Magic Hat Brewing Co., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Redhook Brewery and New Belgium Brewing Co., the maker of Fat Tire Amber Ale.
Also, some craft brewers, most notably Oskar Blues Brewery, produce only canned beer. The growing popularity of Oskar Blues Brewery's flagship brand, Dale's Pale Ale, has helped build acceptance among craft beer drinkers for canned beer, said Hamilton and McCabe.
"That showed that hoppy beers could be in a can," McCabe said.
Both Milwaukee Brewing and Sprecher have installed canning lines. At Sprecher, where root beer also is being canned, that investment totaled over $100,000, Hamilton said.
Some brewers, however, find it's more efficient to outsource the canning operation. Capital Brewery, which ships beer to Stevens Point Brewery to be canned, has sold its Wisconsin Amber in cans since 1996.
"We were selling cans when cans weren't cool," said Nolen.
More recently, Capital has included canned beer with three new product launches: Island Wheat, in 2006; U.S. Pale Ale, in 2007, and Supper Club Lager, in 2010. Canned beer now makes up 13.4% of its overall sales, which includes draft beer sold in kegs.
Stevens Point has long sold its Point Special Lager in cans, and over the past two years has added its Amber Classic, Cascade Pale Ale and Nude Beach Summer Wheat brands to the canned beer lineup, Martino said. This year, Stevens Point plans to roll out its Oktoberfest and 2012 Black Ale in cans.
Meanwhile, Stevens Point has landed canning contracts with other craft brewers, including Dave's Brew Farm, based in rural Wilson, about 40 miles northwest of Eau Claire.
Owner Dave Anderson launched his first brand, Brew Farm Select, in cans in the fall of 2009. Along with keeping beer fresher, and reducing costs, cans are easier to recycle than bottles, Anderson said. That's appealing to a company that bills itself as a "sustainably-based brewery."
"It was a natural fit," Anderson said.
Article written by Tom Daykin, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.