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On Tap: Craft Brewers Turn to an Old Technology to Package Their Beers — Cans

The first time I went out drinking beer with friends (I won’t confess how old I was), we were all chugging from 16 oz. tallboy cans.

The beer was definitely not from a craft brewer. Like pretty much everything that came in these aluminum towers, it was yellow and fizzy and best used for drowning slugs.

In the years that followed, I naturally assumed that anything consumed from cans was crap. But that’s no longer the case, as many craft brewers have returned to cans as their package of choice.

There’s been a tide of converts in recent years as technology advances make it easier and more affordable for small breweries to switch out their bottling lines to make way for canning beer. The arguments in favor are these:

∎ Cans provide a better seal, protecting the beer against oxygen that causes it to go stale faster.

∎ They protect beer against light, which causes the beer to go “skunky.”

∎ And they are easier to recycle.

For these reasons, dozens of craft brewers such as Oskar Blues in Colorado have become can-verts, shunning glass bottles in favor of what they believe is a superior package.

But John Kimmich of The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vt., has taken it a step further. His very fine double IPA Heady Topper also is sold in 16 oz. tallboys. But don’t even think about pouring the contents in a glass. He wants you to enjoy it just as your dad might have enjoyed his beer in the 1970s — straight from the metal cylinder.

“That, to me, is the perfect way of getting it,” Kimmich told me while taking a break from brewing a few days after Thanksgiving. “It’s like, when I’m in the brewery and I pour it right out of the tank and drink it like that. How do you ever get that experience to a customer? Can.”

Kimmich’s Heady Topper arguably is the most sought-after beer in Vermont. It is bursting with tropical and citrus aromas that make you want to snug your nose right up to the opening. If you’re lucky enough to find cans of Heady Topper anywhere, you’ll see a directive printed in capital letters around the lip, telling you how the beer should be enjoyed.

“DRINK FROM THE CAN.”

Beneath it is a lengthy message from Kimmich that explains why. I asked if this was meant to be a joke.

“I wasn’t trying to poke fun at it,” he said. “In my opinion, on a beer like Heady Topper, which is just an ode to hops, (the ideal) is to present hops in their most pristine state. To do that, you need to keep oxygen away from it. And light.”

These are arguments others have made and I largely agree. But, it doesn’t explain why I have to drink it from the can. Will the beer really be noticeably degraded in the time it takes me to pour it in a glass and consume it?

Kimmich makes a third point to explain. Pouring it into a glass inundates the beer with oxygen, which gives you an explosion of aroma at the start but then leads to a faster deterioration of the final sip.

“What always got to me is I would drink a glass of my beer and yes, it’s fantastic, and if you drink it in 30 seconds it’s perfect,” he said. “But if you’re standing there talking and yapping and it’s sitting on the table and it’s got maybe five or 10 minutes before it’s gone, that last sip tastes nothing like the first sip.”

In the can, he said, the beer keeps a little layer of carbonation on the top that rides all the way down.

“And that last sip you take out of that can, if it’s been sitting there a half an hour, it’s dynamite,” he said.

Critics of cans have said the hype is overblown and wonder whether the beer picks up some metallic flavor, despite arguments to the contrary from pro-can advocates.

If the canned beer I’ve tasted has picked up off-flavors, I haven’t been able to detect them. And I believe the benefits of packaging in cans outweigh the drawbacks. But, even as I hear what Kimmich is saying, I’m not completely sold on his argument.

When I’m tasting a beer, I like to look at it. What’s the color, clarity and head retention? What can the appearance tell me about a beer? If I hadn’t poured Heady Topper into a glass, I’d have never seen the hop particles floating in it, which told me the beer wasn’t filtered and offered evidence of where its amazing aroma comes from.

More important is that I enjoy the bouquet that’s released when the beer is poured into a glass and allowed to work up a thick head. It may last only a few seconds until the carbonation dies and pouring it certainly hastens the decline of the beer. But I love those first few moments when the aroma is most pronounced.

It’s true that the last sip will be worse than the first. I guess I’m willing to make the sacrifice, especially with a double IPA, when my taste buds are so compromised by alcohol and hops towards the end that I’ll barely notice a difference.

I’d drink Heady Topper from a Dixie cup, however, if it meant I could get it around here. Nobody seems to be able to keep it in stock. Even the brewery in Waterbury regularly sells out.

Kimmich is expanding and soon hopes to be selling Heady Topper throughout Vermont. Maybe when those first silver tallboys appear in Upper Valley grocery stores, then I’ll hoist one to my lips and drink it down.

I’m sure I’ll enjoy every sip.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.