Bottles helped convince customers they were getting more than just an overpriced version of regular old domestic beer. “Now, there’s a generation that grew up with the craft beer,” Doyle says. “Great beer is made in America at small, local breweries. Now we accept that — so let’s go for utility.”
The advantages of cans are not limited to consumers. They are less expensive to ship and easier for retailers to stock.
Brewers have long understood the practicality of canning, especially since the development of polymer linings that prevent any hints of metallic taste. But other factors have held small companies back: cans’ (swiftly receding) image problem, and the often-prohibitive initial expense of acquiring canning equipment.
In October 2012, Bill Heaton and his wife, Christine, founded Big Elm Brewing in Sheffield. They only distribute to surrounding towns (you cannot find their beer in Boston). Recently they hired their first employee. “Cans are the best package. In the next five to 10 years, we will see more canned than bottled beer,” Heaton says. “We bought a canning line from Wild Goose Engineering, which is the only company in the US that produces small canning lines that are affordable for small breweries.”
Wild Goose has sold 83 such canning lines since the small Colorado company began producing them three years ago. “I think it would be shortsighted if I were not to acknowledge that craft brewers might have done a little damage in some of their initial marketing practices,” says Roger Walz, a “beer ambassador” at Wild Goose, in reference to the widespread use of bottles in the industry. “One of the most fantastic things about craft breweries,” he adds, “is that instead of refusing to change, there is an overall ability to change easily. The camaraderie and the feeling of community has helped.”
On Beeradvocate.com, the leading online hangout for passionate beer geeks, “Heady Topper” Double I.P.A. from Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury, Vt., is the current highest-ranked user favorite. Jennifer Kimmich, who cofounded the brewery in 2011, says cans were always her preference. “It’s about making it accessible — getting away from the ‘winification’ of beer,” she says. “If you’re outside, it’s great because no sunlight ever gets in and interacts with the hops.” Heady Topper, which is only available in Vermont, has a ring of text around the top of each can commanding: “Drink from the can!”
Last spring, Wachusett Brewing Co. in Westminster bought a high-end canning line from Coca-Cola. The brewery now has the ability to produce 800 cans a minute, although it is not yet operating anywhere near that capacity.
“We still have a long way to go,” says T.J. Morse, a marketing and account manager at Wachusett. “In trying to separate ourselves from the Buds and the Millers and the Coors, in saying ‘This is a better beer and it’s in a better package,’ we put a doubled-edged sword to ourselves 20 or 25 years ago, when we were trying to convince people to try something different. Now we have to convince them things have changed — that cans are best.”