Inside the brew house on the Metropolitan State University campus in Denver, brewing program students Kyle Warren and Chris Thibodeau offer a step-by-step demonstration on how to can beer.
First, the cans are rinsed clean and purged with carbon dioxide. Next, beer fills the cans and foam cascades to the rim. Then, the cap is placed on top, the machine crimps the rim to seal it and the outside gets a rinse. And last, the cans are weighed for quality control and arranged in six-pack carriers.
The process takes place on a new system donated to Metro State and run in partnership with Tivoli Brewing, which is located on campus and works with students. The bottling line sits nearby, idle and for sale.
Scott Kerkmans, the program director, said cans are “overtaking the beer world” and students need to learn the latest technology. “It’s really important for us to stay on the bleeding edge,” he said.
The program’s transition earlier this year demonstrates the increasing popularity of cans in the craft beer market. The beer can is now fashionable, defying old stereotypes and winning new fans as the vessel of choice for high-end beers.
“It has become the preferred package for consumers — this is really consumer driven,” said Ken Hehir, the CEO at Tivoli Brewing, the latest Colorado brewer to switch to cans from bottles.
In Colorado, the beer can is a familiar friend
The can is not new to Colorado. Coors created the first aluminum beer can in 1959 in Golden. And in 2002, Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont became the first craft brewer to put its beer in cans.
In 2017, Colorado had the highest percentage of craft beer in cans in the nation, according to the Brewers Association, an industry organization based in Boulder. And local companies, such as Wild Goose Canning and Can Source, are becoming leading providers in the market.
A Nielsen survey that analyzed 2018 consumer data predicted, at the current pace, that craft beer cans will outsell bottles by 2021.
The advantages of cans — for brewers and consumers — are obvious, but not well known.
For beer quality, cans are better because the liquid isn’t exposed to light that can penetrate bottles — even the brown ones — and the lid is a more durable seal than a cap.
For brewers, cans weigh less, reducing shipping costs, and they are easier to stack and store at the brewhouse and retail stores.
For consumers, cans are more portable and allowed at places where glass is prohibited — not to mention they get colder faster and stay colder longer.
“They are more consumer friendly, especially in Colorado,” said Warren, the Metro State student Tivoli brewer, referencing the state’s outdoor lifestyle.
From a hard sell to the hip can
Marty Jones remembers the days when the can was not such an easy sell. He worked as the marketing director at Oskar Blues when the company debuted its Dale’s Pale Ale in a can 17 years ago. To that point, the only beer sold in cans came from mega-brewers who made light American lagers.
At the time, Jones said, the can “was seen as blasphemy to most craft brewers.”
He now works for Cask Global Canning Solutions, the company that sold Oskar Blues its first canning machine and donated the system this year to Metro State for use at its Tivoli operation.
In those earlier days, Jones remembers attending beer festivals and spending more time talking about the can than the beer inside as he battled against uninformed habits and misconceptions that beer in a can didn’t taste as good.
“Over the years you just find more and more people that realize the benefits of cans and can’t ignore them any longer,” he said. “It was once seen as something to avoid. Now it’s a magnet for consumers.”
One reason for the proliferation is the wider availability of affordable canning systems designed for smaller breweries like Tivoli, as well as the advent of mobile canning companies that travel to different breweries.
Now, hip 16-ounce cans hold the latest hazy IPAs and stouts. And cans even are becoming the preference for big, barrel-aged beers and sours — domains once reserved for large-format glass bottles preferred by collectors.
Copper Kettle Brewing in Denver moved its popular Mexican Chocolate Stout and Snowed In stout series to eye-catching 19.2-ounce cans six months ago. Both are often cellared for months or years, and Jeffery Gobien, the owner and brew master, said he anticipates “the beers will age as well or better than the glass.”
Even with the steep price tag for the new cans, Gobien said consumers are willing to pay, and the new packaging helped boost sales by as much as 50% compared to a year ago. “I don’t think that’s as much of an issue in Colorado,” he said. “Our craft beer consumer base … has been exposed to cans.”
Carlin Walsh, the founder and CEO of Elevation Beer Co. in Poncha Springs, saw the brewery’s sales grow when he transitioned to cans two years ago this month. And he received only a couple complaints that the beer tasted metallic from the can, which isn’t true. “There’s some misconceptions behind some of those fears,” he said.
A renewed focus on packaging
The students at Metro State believe the can’s bad rap is fading into the past. But the new system is teaching them an overlooked but important part of making beer: the packaging.
Kerkmans, the program director, said if the canning process is not done properly, it can introduce wild yeast or additional oxygen, both of which can ruin a beer’s flavor over time.
“There’s no point when you get to the packaging step at which you can improve your product anymore,” he said, adding that you only can “make the beer worse.”
Moreover, he said, the increasingly competitive beer market leaves less margin for error when it comes to packaging beer. “With so many brands on the shelf now,” he said, “you really have to make sure you don’t lose them in that first experience they have with your brand.”