This story starts not with a can, but with a bottle. When microbrewed beer became popular in the 1980s and ’90s, it came in a brown bottle. Then 10 years ago, Dale Katechis had a dream: to be the first small brewer to put beer in a can.
“The biggest fear was that the customer felt like bad beer comes in cans and tastes like metal,” he said.
But first, a more immediate dilemma: the minimum order from the manufacturer was five million cans. So Katechis found a company that would sell him just one truckload, about 150,000 cans.
And while beer behemoths such as Miller and Budweiser used automated machinery, smaller machines — for smaller companies — didn’t exist. So Katechis bought a simple hand-operated device, he set it on a picnic table inside a barn, and canned by hand. It took eight minutes to do a six-pack.
“And we stood there, you know, two guys with our hoodies on, and it was freezing,” he recalled. “It was late November 2002, and we were like kings of the world.”
And like that, craft beer was in cans: Dale’s Pale Ale. But what about that stigma against the can? That same can that held the cheapest beer you could find — back before you had kids, got fat, and started buying expensive beer. How’d they convince people like you that the can was back?
“We went out into the market every single day as hard as we could,” he said. “Cracking open cans of beer and say[ing], ‘Would you try my beer? Whaddya think?’”
People liked it. Dale’s Pale Ale was a surprise hit, and others took notice.
“We saw that people were really starting to look at canned beer, not only is the quality of the product is just as good as bottles but it’s really cool,” said Jesse Brookstein, packaging manager at Avery Brewing in Boulder.
Avery is one of 179 craft brewers around the country now selling beer in cans, up from zero a decade ago. He says his brewery added cans because customers wanted them. But it made business sense, too.
“The materials are less expensive, the shipping is less expensive, it keeps all light out — even better than a bottle,” Brookstein said. “And they’re great for hiking.”
On the day of a recent visit, Avery’s canning line is filling cans of Ellie’s Brown Ale. The cans shuffle around the small room on elevated tracks. This kind of high-tech but small-canning line is a new invention. Also new: can co-ops, which specialize in filling small aluminum can orders. These developments make the rise of craft beer in cans possible.
But ultimately, it comes down to this: You’re standing in the beer aisle. Bottles or cans?
“I prefer the can,” Mike McDowell said after he pulled a 12-pack of Dale’s Pale off the shelf at a local store. “Because most of the good beers now are being canned.”
“I like how it feels, I like how it drinks, I’m a can guy,” he said as he raised his hand, firmly gripping an imaginary beer can.
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