Craft Beer In A Can? A Gutsy Move Is Paying Off
SCOTT SIMON, host:
OK, this sound…
(Soundbite of can opening)
SIMON: Ugh - hope we didn't get any on you - has never been associated with top-flight beer. But several craft breweries across the country have recently started offering beer in cans. Despite the stigma, sales are booming, especially in Anchorage.
Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt reports.
ANNIE FEIDT: Putting good beer in a can used to be considered something close to blasphemy.
Mr. JOHN BURKETT (Beverage Distributor): For decades, bad beer...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BURKETT: Cheap beer, I should say; no beer is bad. Cheap beer has been in a can.
FEIDT: That's John Burkett, an early believer in the potential of good canned beer. He's a beer lover and a local beverage distributor in Anchorage. Burkett thought cans would be easier than bottles to take camping, fishing or hiking. They're lighter to ship. And he says the beer actually tastes better, too. Cans protect the ingredients from sunlight and oxygen, which degrades the flavor over time.
Mr. BURKETT: The product is every bit as good in a can, possibly even better. It's just - try it. And everybody that does try it is shocked, and loves it.
FEIDT: But Burkett didn't have many converts in Anchorage until early this year, when the city stopped recycling glass. Since then, he's watched the market for good canned beer explode. In Anchorage, the cans often cost a dollar or two more a six-pack than similar beer in bottles. But Burkett says even that doesn't seem to matter.
Mr. BURKETT: Actually, the biggest problem we have now is trying to get more and more in. We get some in, we run out. We get some in, we run out.
(Soundbite of brewery)
FEIDT: That supply issue is one Clay Brackley knows well. He's head brewer at the Sleeping Lady Brewery in downtown Anchorage. A few years ago, the pub invested in a small, hand-canning system to package their Urban Wilderness Pale Ale. In the beginning, Brackley says, sales were bleak.
Mr. CLAY BRACKLEY (Brewer): And the first couple of years were very depressing, very tough.
FEIDT: But then, this summer rolled around.
Mr. BRACKLEY: It's been insane this year. It's been like over a thousand times what we did last year - I mean, so that we can't even keep up. As much as we can make the cans, they sell faster than we can make them.
FEIDT: Brackley recruited nine volunteers to help manage the extra work - although on this day, it's just him and a beer intern working in a dimly lit room in the brew pub's basement.
(Soundbite of machine)
FEIDT: Brackley fills each can from a machine that looks a bit like a gas station coffee dispenser. Then he hands it to an intern, who seals on the top and then stamps the cans together with a plastic, six-pack ring.
(Soundbite of stamping)
FEIDT: It's a labor-intensive process. Brackley imagines a day when Sleeping Lady can upgrade to an automatic system. Several craft breweries have already made that leap. One of the largest, Big Sky Brewing in Montana, installed a line last spring that fills 60 cans a minute. They're selling twice as fast as the company expected.
Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado sells only canned beer. Co-founder Marty Jones…
Mr. MARTY JONES, (Co-founder, Oskar Blues Brewery): See, we knew it would be an obstacle. I mean, the first stores we took our beer to, they told us, they got funny, and we appreciate your guts. But no craft beer lover will spend, you know, craft beer prices to buy beer in a can.
FEIDT: Oskar Blues now sells its cans in 25 states. And Jones reports sales are up more than 80 percent for the first half of this year.
Mr. JONES: We're growing like mad. We opened a new brewery last April because we couldn't keep up with demand. And we've already added some tanks to that brewery to try to keep up.
FEIDT: According to the National Brewers Association, 45 craft breweries across the country now can at least some beer. Anchorage beverage distributor John Burkett predicts good canned beer will take off first in outdoor-lifestyle states like California, Oregon, Montana and Alaska.
Mr. BURKETT: So I think that's where you'll see the cans really hit first, and then it'll spread.
FEIDT: But even can enthusiasts like Burkett don't want beer lovers drinking their favorite brew straight from the can. He says no matter what package the beer comes in, it can't be properly enjoyed until it's poured into a glass.
For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.
(Soundbite of song, "Roll Out the Barrel")
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