Small and independent craft brewers are experts when it comes to tinkering with traditional barley-based beer recipes.
They’re also the brains behind some of the most exciting developments in canning.
When the craft beer craze began sweeping the country in the mid-1990s, almost all microbrews were sold in glass bottles. Then in 2002, Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery started selling its ale in 12-ounce cans. It was a huge success. Soon, breweries across the nation, and their customers, realized cans had advantages over glass including:
- Cans are easier to carry around.
- They are less expensive to ship because they weigh less than glass bottles.
- Aluminum protects the beer from light damage, which can negatively affect taste.
- Production of cans causes fewer CO2 emissions.
“Canned beer is cool now,” says Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course. Cans are “more portable and you can drink them in places glass isn’t permitted.”
Not surprisingly, craft brewers have also aimed their ingenuity – the same creative energy that gives us watermelon pilsner and bourbon-barrel stout – at their packaging. In recent years, a few brewers have partnered with can manufacturers to develop new designs, sizes, shapes and technologies. Here are some of the most interesting results:
Before you can understand how a Crowler works, you’ve got to learn about the growler.
Growlers are airtight jugs made of out of glass, steel or ceramic. In the 1800s, beer lovers who wanted to drink at home filled their growlers at local pubs. As microbreweries popped up across the nation, growlers became cool again – beer nerds wanted to get fresh take-out beer straight from the tap at their favorite pubs.
But growlers can be complicated. In some states, customers must buy a new growler directly at a brewery every time they want one filled, instead of reusing growlers they already own. Some worry about the best way to sanitize growlers. As a result, a lot of people have cabinets full of empty growlers.
To address the problems growler lovers growl about, in 2014, Oskar Blues worked with Ball Corp. to manufacture the Crowler, a hybrid between an extra-large beer can and a growler.
It works like this: A bartender fills a 32-ounce aluminum can with beer from the tap, then seals it with a pop-top lid using a tabletop sealing machine.
Crowlers have all kinds of benefits for breweries and consumers. A Crowler machine costs only a few thousand dollars, which is why over 1,000 machines now reside in microbreweries across the nation.
On the customer end, Crowlers are lighter than traditional growlers — making them easier to carry around — and recyclable, so there’s no need to sanitize, reuse or store the container after use.
“Crowlers are one of the biggest successes,” says Russ Phillips, the founder of www.craftcans.com, which reviews craft beers in cans. “Some gas stations even have the machines because the cost of machinery is so low.”
One complaint craft beer drinkers have about cans is that the small opening means you can’t smell the beer’s aroma. In 2013, the Sly Fox Brewing Company solved this problem when it began selling the 360 End, a completely removable top that turns a beer can into a cup.
The top, originally developed by Crown Beverage Packaging and SABMiller in 2010, allows the beer’s aroma to reach the nose faster.
There’s also no need to pour the beer into a separate cup. “This has made these kinds of cans incredibly popular at sports stadiums,” Russ says. “They don’t have to pour the can into a cup anymore, which means less waste.”
While canning makes it easier and cheaper for microbreweries to get their products into stores, it also makes it harder it for their beers to stand out on crowded shelves.
In response, Crown has begun working with craft brewers to develop new lines of inks and finishes for cans. “Some cans glow in the dark, or have temperature-sensitive ink that changes color the colder your beer gets,” Philips says.
Other inks and coatings change color when rotated or exposed to light, revealing previously unseen messages or images.
“Craft cans have become a great platform for artists who want to help breweries stand out on crowded shelves,” Bernstein says.
Check out some of the best beer designs, on both bottles and cans, at Oh Beautiful Beer.