The Beer Babe

by Carla Jean Lauter
by Carla Jean Lauter

Those who can, can

When I recently picked up the bin that I use to collect my returnables, I wasn’t greeted by the usual cacophony of clinking glass. Instead, the pang and rattle of aluminum drew my attention to the fact that nearly all the beer I’d been drinking over the past few weeks had been canned.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. As of the end of last month, 20 percent of the commercial brewers in Maine were offering at least one of their beers in 12 or 16 oz. cans — double the percentage that was doing so even a year ago. Canning offers a few key benefits to beer drinkers: a shorter chilling time, complete light and oxygen blockage, and increased safety (no more broken glass at the beach). Today’s beer cans are also lined, so there is never a metallic taste, even if you drink straight from the container.

Much of the work to dispel the beer can’s bad reputation had already been done by the time Luke Livingston opened Baxter Brewing Co. in Lewiston four years ago. Livingston proclaimed he was “ready to fight” those stereotypes when he started canning Baxter, but found that he didn’t really have to. Maine beer drinkers embraced the cans wholeheartedly, a fact Livingston attributes to Mainers’ love of the outdoors and desire for beer that fit in with activities like hiking and boating.

Canning does present significant challenges for brewers. Systems like Baxter’s take up broad swaths of a brewery’s floor plan. Cans have to be ordered in bulk, with minimum orders in the thousands — which, in turn, need to be stored somewhere. And unlike bottles affixed with paper labels, cans arrive with their artwork permanently printed on the surface. If you’re going to put a beer in a can, you better want to brew a whole lot of it.

Despite these challenges, Peter Bissell, co-founder of Bissell Brothers Brewing Co. in Portland, said the decision to can the company’s hop-forward brews was easy. “We knew that we wanted to bring a new level to fresh beer in Maine,” he said. “Cans are a no-brainer.”

Bissell Brothers started last year with a system Bissell described as “super manual.” It required four people to operate it efficiently. At top speed, about 10 of Bissell Brothers’ shiny “tallboy”–style 16 oz. cans make it out of this process per minute. Baxter, by comparison, can get 65 out in the same amount of time. Bissell Brothers’ manual system is slated to be replaced in a few weeks with new equipment that can process up to 35 cans per minute.

Unlike Bissell Brothers and Baxter, most Maine breweries only can some of their beer line-up. This category includes both Shipyard Brewing Company and D.L. Geary Brewing Company, which have started to offer beers like the iconic Shipyard Pumpkinhead and Geary’s H.S.A. in cans to reach a wider audience, as well as smaller breweries like Rising Tide, Funky Bow and Marshall Wharf.

photo/Carla Jean Lauter
photo/Carla Jean Lauter

The newest member of the can club is Portland’s Foundation Brewing Company. Primarily known for its clean and crisp saisons, Foundation debuted Epiphany, a generously hopped IPA that weighs in at about 8% ABV, in December, to a favorable critical response. Epiphany is the first Foundation beer to be canned — brightly colored four-packs of 16 oz. cans began appearing last month.

Joel Mahaffey, co-founder of Foundation, was looking for ways to more efficiently package their beer, and decided mobile canning was the answer. Mobile canners such as Iron Heart, the company Foundation partners with, have portable systems that are brought to breweries as needed. This portability makes it possible for smaller breweries like Foundation (or larger breweries without additional space) to can their beer without investing in large, costly infrastructure.

Maine craft beers are now so popular that many breweries are hard pressed to produce enough to meet demand in a timely fashion. The growing popularity of canned craft beers may relieve some of the pressure to provide enough kegs for restaurants and bars, or the competition may just spread to store shelves.

So listen closely to your recycling bins this year — it’s going to be an interesting trend to follow.

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