The project’s code name — Bunker Hill — hinted at the formidable challenge Boston Beer Co. faced: could the craft brewery that revolutionized American beer put its Sam Adams lager in a can without sacrificing the taste millions of consumers expect with every sip?
For decades, company founder Jim Koch snubbed aluminum containers because of the metallic flavor they impart to liquid. His resolve cost the Boston-based brewer millions of dollars in potential revenue from airlines and sports arenas, a price Koch said he paid to preserve the quality of a brew whose tagline until recently was: “Take pride in your beer.”
Koch refused to budge when manufacturers created a can lining that kept the beverage from touching aluminum, or as other craft brewers, such as Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, and Fat Tire began embracing the metal containers over the last 10 years. But two springs ago, Koch decided to take another look at the market, and ultimately, create his own can.
“We thought Jim would eventually change his mind and he’d just come around,” said Jay Billings, director of innovation and marketing for Ball, a Colorado canning company that packages Oskar Blues and 150 other craft brewers’ products. “It took us a long time to understand that Sam Adams was not going to go in a standard 12-ounce beverage can.”
The quest for a better can took the Bunker Hill team to a plastic coffee lid collector in New York, a museum of beer cans in a Taunton basement, and tailgating parties at Gillette Stadium. The two-year effort cost more than $1 million, including the hiring of a renowned design firm and professional beer consultants, as well as the purchase of expensive canning equipment. Now, Koch is finally ready to release his precious Boston lager in a patent-pending can he claims is superior to the regular metal vessel most people drink from.
“I’ve been the holdout,” acknowledged Koch, who founded the company 29 years ago. “I’ve been the purist.”
To launch the initiative, Koch contracted with IDEO, the high-profile designers of the original Apple mouse, and assembled the Bunker Hill team in Boston, led by commander (a.ka. project manager) Peter Gladstone.
In summer 2011, they traveled to Ball’s factory near Denver to study the canning process — the thickness of aluminum, molecular properties, how beer pours from a can, and what impacts the flow. They hung out with well-lubricated football fans in Foxborough to understand why drinkers prefer beer in cans — they account for roughly 57 percent of the US retail market, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago market research firm. The Bunker Hill team interviewed taste experts around the world and examined thousands of plastic coffee cup lids to understand the range of drink delivery options (the peel, the pucker, the pinch, and the puncture).
The big discovery: Conventional cans don’t allow enough air into people’s mouths as they drink. Turns out, much of what consumers believe they taste is actually smell — that’s why food tastes so bland when people are congested. Increasing exposure to the beer’s aromas of hops and fruit can make a big difference in taste, said Roy Desrochers, a professional beer taster at GEI Consultants in Woburn.
So the team began looking for ways to improve air flow. Over several months, IDEO proposed dozens of designs and created eight prototypes that expanded the size and shape of the can’s opening. Larger apertures — one shaped like a bell, another like a peanut — were supposed to enhance the air flow and access to aromas. The most promising idea, according to Koch, was a design that allowed drinkers to tear off the entire top.Continued...