Alaskan Brewing Co. is entering the growing canned microbrew market.
Starting Monday, the Juneau-based beer maker will sell its flagship Amber Ale and its Freeride American Pale Ale in 12-ounce cans.
In recent years, consumers have become more accepting of craft beer in cans. But is it as good as bottles?
I set out to answer that question on a recent sunny afternoon. I grabbed six-pack of Freeride APA bottles and a can of the same beer supplied by the brewery, and got together with a few friends for some grilled halibut and a side-by-side taste test.
Before we started there were a lot of theories about the differences between bottles and cans. My girlfriend, Kate, thought there might be a change in the level of carbonation. Our friend Quinn thought the can itself might affect the taste of the beer.
Ultimately, we decided there wasn’t much difference. None of us are beer snobs, and to our untrained palettes, the stuff from the can tasted a lot like the stuff from the bottle.
In light of that, Quinn brought up the next logical question, at least to our group of friends: “If you were to hike to a cabin, would you grab a six pack of cans or a six pack of bottles?”
Everyone answered cans.
Bottles vs. cans
Alaskan Brewing Co. co-founder Geoff Larson is banking on a lot of beer drinkers being into cans. They’re lighter and more portable than glass, especially when empty, making them great for outdoor activities. Larson says the company had numerous requests for cans, and wants to provide its beer in places where customers want to drink it.
“Backpacking, boating, fishing, being on the beach,” he says.
But Larson says Alaskan isn’t willing to sacrifice quality for convenience. While some small breweries like Colorado-based Oskar Blues have had success with canned beer for more than a decade, Alaskan took its time getting into the market. Larson says the company researched several canning lines before finding the right one at a brewing festival in Germany. The line reduces the amount of oxygen picked up during the canning process.
“That’s the key. Anytime you’re dealing with filling bottles of beer, or cans, or kegs, it’s exposure to air, exposure to oxygen that can lower the life,” Larson says. “And this canning line is right now packaging the cans at the same quality as our bottling line.”
He says the biggest difference between cans and bottles is that you’re drinking from a different vessel.
“Just the way the beer comes out of the can. It comes out in these little gurgles,” he says. “In that way you’re actually getting a different kind of experience. But as far as the quality of the beer, it’s spot on.”
The Alaskan Brewing Co. plant is a maze of staircases and narrow walkways. As the company has grown over nearly 30 years, the footprint of its operation has stayed relatively small, even for a craft brewer. The new canning line is wedged in near the bottling line and a packaging area in the main brew house.
“When we made the commitment to go ahead and put the line in, we knew exactly what size we had and it had to fit only in here,” Larson says from a platform above the new line. “It looks like it fits perfectly, but it took a little bit of effort.”
Initially the cans will be available only in Alaska, because the company doesn’t have enough space to produce canned beer for its markets in the Lower 48.
The brewery recently broke ground on a multi-million dollar expansion that will link its two buildings in Juneau’s Lemon Creek area. The larger facility will allow the cans to be more widely distributed.
While it’s too soon to say what new beers Alaskan might produce, Larson says the expansion will let the company grow comfortably over the next decade.
You can’t really know what’s going to happen 12 months down the road. But now I think we’re looking at five to 10 years with a lot more certainty and clarity,” Larson says.
The expansion project is scheduled to be complete by early next year.
In addition to the new canning line, Alaskan recently started distributing its beers in two new states — Michigan and South Dakota. Alaskan Brewing Co. beer is now available in 17 states nationwide.