Here’s a tip for beer lovers: Next time you land at Denver International Airport, get in a car and head north. The Front Range looms on your left as you pass the strip malls and big-box stores, the bedroom communities, the Republic of Boulder. After 44 miles, you’ll be in Longmont, Colo., where Sal in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road slumbered in a verdant patch at a roadside gas station. Off the boulevard (there’s just one), hard by the tracks, follow the gray ribbon past schools into an ashy industrial area. A single red door marks your destination. A recent tempestuous spring afternoon offered chill and drizzle outside the portal, but plenty of good cheer within.
This is the Oskar Blues Brewery, and it brings people together: Fox News and The New York Times agree that the country’s finest pale ale is made here. Stranger still, this champion of pale ales comes in a can. In the Napa Valley of Beer—as they call the region stretching along the Front Range from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins—the can is king. And Oskar Blues, which pioneered the canned craft beer movement, is royalty.
The brewery’s Tasty Weasel Tap Room, where you can sample the wares, is decidedly not a palace. Its industrial-funk atmosphere is steeped in the tar-thick miasma of hops and malt fermenting in the 30-odd shimmering stainless-steel brew kettles that tower over the space. Peanuts in the shell are both the menu and the floor covering. Some of the beers, however, are so rich, heady and chewy that they count as comfort and food.
On this damp day in May, firkins are filled and six-packs of cans—one road warrior from Chicago recently stuffed $200 worth in his car’s trunk—are pulled from the commercial, glass-doored beer fridge. Though the place is packed elbow to earhole, Goretex to cross trainers, there is a loose, graceful, athletic flow to the bustle. Colorado is, after all, the fittest state in the 50, according to the Trust for America’s Health. No bowling shirts and beer bellies in this beer-drinking bunch.
That explains, in part, the advent and skyrocketing popularity of beer in a can, says Chad Melis—it’s the perfect vessel for active outdoors types. Melis, pierced-nosed and blue-jeaned, once rode mountain bikes competitively; now he markets beer and beer events for Oskar Blues. In a memento-filled meeting room at the brewery’s headquarters, he recites a checklist of the benefits of the can for naysayers and nose-wrinklers who refuse to consider the notion that tasty beer could reside in such environs. Cans are lighter to ship, easier to recycle and quicker to chill. They take up less space. They protect the beverage from direct light (no “skunky” beer!), and—a big deal for outdoors sorts—they don’t shatter. Canned beer is traveling beer, literally, for river rats, day hikers or campers. The Oskar Blues logo on each can reads, “Pack it in, Pack it out.”
The canarchy along the Front Range began in the tiny town of Lyons, the red, sandstone gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2002, Oskar Blues began putting craft beer in a can (two at a time) in an old barn located near its Lyons brew pub. Today, there are about 120 craft brewers nationally who have followed suit.
Yet, even with its market-share booming, canned craft beer still has some old perceptions to overcome. For many years, many American brewers put many watered-down lagers in many cans. The resulting taste, in many cases, was tin-tinged beer. But canned craft brewers aren’t producing watered-down, American-style brews. They encourage bar stool tourism, packaging high-gravity, full-bodied beverages like Scottish style ale, India Pale Ale, English Special Bitter and Belgian-style brews.
Ball Corporation, a few miles south of Oskar Blues, makes the cans used by most craft canners. They are designed with a polymer-coated container so there’s no contact between ale and alloy. It works. That science, and the alchemy particular to craft brewers, has created a new reality: Beer in cans is very, very good. And beer competitions across the country—including the Great American Beer Festival held each fall in Denver, with some 50,000 attendees—have increasingly been recognizing and awarding craft beer in cans.
But, but … beer in a can? Yes, and syrah with screw cap and Barolo in a box are now generally, if in some quarters reluctantly, considered equal to the traditional presentation. The similarities don’t end there; as a sommelier is to wine, so is a cicerone to beer. Both educator and guide, the cicerone undergoes extensive training and testing; they’re Ph.Ds of beer. And they’re speaking up for craft canned beer.
“Tasting is believing,” says Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association in Boulder, and a certified cicerone. “If you look at a keg—draft beer—that’s really just a big can.”