Taste: Getting Canned

Marnie Old tells us why crafter brewers think cans are cool.

CANNED BEER CONJURES UP images of male rituals like bass fishing and frat parties, tailgating and paintball, while bottled beer has always had more class. Some ambitious brews even use oversize wine-esque bottles and corks to separate themselves from the masses. But technological advances have flipped the beer world on its ear. Quality-minded brewers now face an unexpected quandary: what to do when the best way to preserve a premium beer’s freshness and flavor is in a can — a package long associated with cheap swill.

Cheaper and more compact than bottles, cans have always been the cost-effective choice for mass-market beers, and are still a lowbrow staple on Philly’s anti-cool-bar scene. Bob & Barbara’s Lounge on South Street popularized the two-dollar PBR, while The Dive near the Italian Market slings Schlitz at a buck-fifty a pop-top. Those metal cans, which used to impart an unpleasant tinny taste to beer, now have lining films to protect the flavor, but most well-known craft brewers still choose glass because of the reputation of cans, the same way wineries continue to use corks instead of the technologically advanced Stelvin screw caps.

For the beer can, things began to change in the 1990s, when giants like Guinness introduced “nitro-cans,” in which pressure-sensitive “widgets,” plastic balls filled with nitrogen, depressurize upon the can’s opening and agitate the surrounding beer to give your newly opened suds a fine, frothy head. These premium imports quickly acquired cachet, and even beer snobs were forced to acknowledge the can’s potential.

Now a new generation of brewers is rejecting package-bias and embracing high-tech cans for premium brews. Modern cans are as inert as glass, and protect beer far better from light damage. Easily recyclable and lightweight, they chill faster and are welcome on beaches and golf courses, where bottles aren’t. Inspired by the example of Dale’s Pale Ale from Colorado, craft brewers across the country are exploring the possibilities. In New York, breweries like Brooklyn and Butternuts are making waves in cans. Locally, Sly Fox has taken the lead. Royal Weisse, a German-style wheat beer, will join Phoenix Pale Ale, Pikeland Pils and Dunkel Lager in the brewery’s aluminum lineup for the 2007 season. Find these upscale cans at Good Dog in Center City, Citizens Bank Park for Phillies games, and, of course, at the Sly Fox brewpubs in Royersford and Phoenixville.

Old may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.

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