Craft beer cans unleash brewers’ creative side

Craft beer cans are a canvas for inventive art
This Sierra Nevada/Crux Fermentation Project collaboration shows how inventive storytelling can take over craft beer cans.

A four-pack balanced in a life preserver, a 12-pack encased in a boom box with pop-out speakers for coasters, a tiny bus carting your beers right to you — as craft brewers have adopted cans as their packaging of choice, they’re also getting creative.

Some of this is a product of a marketplace that’s getting more crowded every day, as more brewers cram into the fastest-growing segment of the beer business.

“The market in general is so competitive, everybody’s fighting for that consumer that’s going to try something new every week,” says Russ Phillips, founder of Craft Cans, a website dedicated to tracking the cans, and can art, now prevalent in the craft beer world. “So people are just trying to be more and more creative.”

When Phillips started the blog in 2009, he thought he was creating a niche spin on craft beer reviews. At the time, there were fewer than 100 canned craft beers available, a manageable amount to test and write about. But he quickly realized he’d tapped into something much bigger: a deep well of interest in beer cans.

“As soon as the website went live, I sort of realized that there’s this whole other segment of the population that’s not just interested in the beer but the cans themselves,” he says. “The beer-can-collector population was being rejuvenated.”

As craft beer sales increased, canned craft beer grew along with it. Phillips’ site lists 533 breweries canning 2,062 beers, though he adds that an asterisk should follow those numbers. Today, it’s impossible to keep up with the growth.

Part of the reason craft brewers seem to be exponentially adopting cans is purely functional — mobile canning lines have made it possible for small breweries to can, while innovations like shrink-wrapped labels have reduced the number of cans brewers need to commit to at the start.

The other reasons are all marketing.

“The can has more available real estate to tell your story,” says Julia Herz, the Craft Beer Program director at the Brewers Association. “The entire package is a label. There’s so much more information, there’s so much more art, there’s so much real estate for the brewery to express the idea behind that brand.”

Phillips points to Chicago’s Half Acre Brewery as an example of how cans can further a brand. “They do such an amazing job with their artwork, it’s almost like you’re buying this cool little thing that’s not just what’s inside. It’s hard to explain … it’s almost like a cool extension of the product.”

Keith Lemcke, vice president of the Siebel Institute of Technology, one of the country’s top brewing schools, emails that it’s “absolutely the case” that cans offer a bigger canvas for telling a craft brewer’s story. He also adds that the can itself allows for artwork that might otherwise be cost prohibitive. “Unpainted areas of the can automatically give label designers the ability to use the base metal as part of the overall design, something that is costly when using metallics on paper or plastic labels.”

Whereas 10 years ago craft beer drinkers might have despaired over cans’ presumed inferiority, today Phillips argues that the stigma is entirely gone, and that going all canned can even better a brewery. “I’ve seen improvements in breweries who have gone from bottles to cans,” he says, pointing to Tallgrass Brewing Company in Kansas as an example. “They made that move before a lot of other breweries, and it was a risky move. But the can designs they originally released looked so much better than the bottles, and they’ve gone on to do some amazing things.”

Phillips doesn’t think the art opportunities are the only reason some brewers decide to go canned, but it’s certainly a factor. “It’s probably twofold,” he says. “People realize they can do some cool stuff with cans, and also the consumers are pretty excited about it, and they’re not skeptical anymore.”

Not only are they not skeptical, Phillips adds — some are also downright zealous. “These people are now advocates for [cans],” he says. “They’re the ones defending a brewery’s decisions to put a beer in a can, and I don’t think there’s any better example of success when it comes to packaging.”