For serious beer quaffers, can is a four-letter word. These aluminum cylinders are now as down market as Kennedy Fried Chicken: perfect for price-conscious consumers indifferent about consumption.
Yet the last several years have born a seismic shift in canned perception: No longer are canned beers the province of binging frat boys, blue-collar Joes and ironic twentysomethings. Pop-top brew is now classy, and credit goes to a small Colorado brewpub located in a Rocky Mountain town with fewer residents than a housing project.
The Boulder area's Oskar Blues Brewery is HQ of canned twosome Dale's Pale Ale (a "huge, voluminously hopped motha," according to its slogan) and Old Chub, a motor-oil-thick Scottish Ale with a knockout punch. Unlike compatriots like Milwaukee's Best and Natural Light, which value bulk sales over bold taste, Oskar's offerings are, dare I say, delicious. Bye-bye, metallic tang: In its stead there's an assertive, full-bodied brew acceptable for both hoity-toity bistro and backyard barbecue.
"It's the canned-beer apocalypse," says Marty Jones, spokesman for Oskar Blues, which started infiltrating New York in March. "Tasting our beers is like hearing [soul singer] Big Maybelle's voice come out of Ashlee Simpson's mouth." But Oskar Blues' packaging was not conceived as a clever ruse: Instead, it stemmed from an unwanted piece of paper.
In June 2002, western Canada's Cask Brewing Systems sent Oskar a fax touting its two-container, hand-canning system-and "we laughed hysterically for six months," says Dale Ketechis, Oskar's owner. "Then one day, I stopped laughing."
Aluminum cans, the company discovered, protect beer from its enemies: light and oxygen, which make beer skunk. And modern-day can linings eliminate the problem of tinny taste. Less obviously, cans were ideal for Oskar's hiker-and-fisherman fan base: "Our cans could go where bottled beers can't, where flavorless canned beers don't belong," Jones says.
In November of 2002, the hand-canning began. The results were delicious and, oddly, therapeutic. Letters poured into Oskar about men "drinking canned beer without feeling any shame," Jones says. To meet demand, an automated five-can machine was purchased to supply proud drinkers from Massachusetts to Washington. Heck, the cans have been so successful that the 5,000-plus barrels produced last year made Oskar Blue America's top-producing brewpub, according to the Brewers Association.
Success breeds imitation, and now 20-odd American microbreweries-including local kingpin Brooklyn-sell canned beer. Instead of guarding trade secrets, Oskar's allows any microbrewer to examine its operation. "The more great beers in cans, the faster we can change people's perceptions, and the better off we-and our peers and consumers-are," Jones says.
Even New Yorkers? We like our canned beer icy and ironic. Jones sees our resurgent interest in Pabst, Rheingold and Schlitz as reinforcing his belief that northeast corridor dwellers lack the "I'm above canned beer" foolishness. Us city dwellers, he says, can "appreciate the finer things in life, including big, rich beers."
Though it's unlikely that a Park Avenue socialite will crack a Dale's, one demographic would happily chug these suds: my mildly alcoholic friends. If anyone is familiar with crappy canned beers, it's them. I distributed Dale's and Chub to their open, thirsty throats:
"I can't believe something this creamy comes out of a can," says my medical-editing friend, Jose. "It sure beats the hell out that Golden, Colorado, crap."
"Um, what the hell-something good from something I can crush on my head?" says my waiter-roommate, Cory, draining the Old Chub. He has a beer palate less evolved than protozoa and regularly consumes Bud Light six-packs, but "I could actually savor this," he says.
Such converts are putting a crimp in Oskar Blues brewing operation: There's such a demand for tank space and canning time that the company has had to postpone distributing its Gordon double IPA and One Nut brown ale. But this is a problem that Oskar Blues is proud to have as it changes conceptions, one aluminum cylinder after another.
"We get a great deal of joy out of handing a nonbeliever a can of our beer and watching their head spin around," Ketechis says. "They just experienced something they'll remember for the rest of their lives."
In July, Oskar Blues Brewery will visit Hop Devil Grill. For more info, visit oskarblues.com or hopdevil.com. Cans are available at New York's better bars and grocery stores. Please crush them against