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Published: Wednesday, 5/25/2011

Pffsst, really? Craft brewers turning to cans, and liking it

BY TOM DAYKIN
MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

MILWAUKEE -- 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 such as 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 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, Wis.-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, such as tailgating and picnics.

Also, convenience stores sell most of their beverages in cans or plastic bottles, not glass bottles, Mr. Hamilton said. That opens up a new sales channel for packaged craft beer, which typically is 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, Mr. Nolen said.

Canned beer is viewed by some craft brew fans as inferior to bottled beer, Mr. 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 might 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, Mr. McCabe said. If possible, drinkers should pour the can of beer into a glass, he said. Mr. 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," he said.

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, Mr. Hamilton said.



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