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Getting canned: Why beer tastes better, sells better in cans

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Daniel DeAlmeida, the general manager of Left Bank Burger Bar in Jersey City, said customers are going for canned beer.
Daniel DeAlmeida, the general manager of Left Bank Burger Bar in Jersey City, said customers are going for canned beer. - (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

When Daniel DeAlmeida opened the Left Bank Burger Bar, a neighborhood beer, bourbon and gourmet burger joint in Jersey City last October, he had a simple vision for success: great food and domestic beer.

Served in cans. That's right, cans.

Distributors, he said, initially scoffed at his idea for an "American-strong" bar that served only canned beer, but DeAlmeida knew better. And he appears to be ahead of the curve.

"Cans are making a comeback," he explained while arranging his stock to showcase bold and unique logos printed on his 13 varieties.

By serving popular brands such as Blue Moon, Brooklyn Lager and Sierra Nevada alongside lesser-known, exclusively canned brews such as Oskar Blues and 21st Amendment, DeAlmeida's gamble is paying off.

He said he didn't do it for a better profit margin — though selling canned beer is more lucrative than bottles — but instead for the customer experience. He said cans produce a better tasting brew that his customers would recognize after only a few sips.

He is definitely on to something.

The sale of canned beer is on the rise. According to the 2012 Brewer's Almanac, cans accounted for 53.2 percent of the beer market share, while bottles held only 36.5 percent.

Taste is a major reason: Cans offer an airtight seal devoid of oxygen and complete protection against UV light, both of which affect the taste and quality of bottled beer.

There are the financial benefits, too. Retailers not only save on shipping and recycling costs of lighter aluminum, but they are able to stack more products in their coolers. And there's no chance for breakage.

And while the surge in popularity of "hipster" beers such as Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life created successful "throwback" campaigns to boost sales and even prices, DeAlmeida said the trend is being spurred by what many might think is an unlikely source: Craft beers.

"Customers now have the mindset that they will only drink PBR from a can, but when I introduce them to our canned craft beers, they always order one — and more often than not, will try another," he said.

Meredith Kilgannon, the communications director for Hunterdon Distributors in Whitehouse Station, currently markets more than 70 craft brands with one of the best portfolios in the country. And more of it is moving to cans — for the taste.

"I don't think you'll find the quality of a craft beer in a can to be any different from that in a bottle," she said. "Craft brewers take a lot of pride in their beer. If it's not perfect, they'll figure a way to make it so."

Craft brews are especially important for the beer economy: The Brewer's Association recently revealed that American craft beer sales increased by 15 percent in the first six months of 2013, while overall beer sales dropped 2 percent.

Perhaps this is why in 2002, Colorado-based Oskar Blues, creator of the top-selling Dale's Pale Ale, chose to produce and distribute its beers exclusively in cans. Other microbreweries have since followed suit, with more than 50 craft brewers supplying canned beer in 2013.

They aren't the only ones. Beer companies that historically resisted producing aluminum-wrapped beer also have changed their tunes.

Samuel Adams Brewing Company spent $1 million last year to design their famous "Sam Can." Guinness specifically created a "widget" for their canned stout that would allow the beer to retain its famous creamy head when poured in one fell swoop. And Lagunitas Brewing Company, once brazenly opposed to cans on social media, looked in to creating a canning line just last year.

The movement is strong in New Jersey, too. Carton Brewery in Atlantic Highlands is the first in the state to can all its brews.

Augie Carton, owner of Carton Brewery, said he wonders why it took everyone so long to figure all this out.

"Hops are light-sensitive," he explained. "For all beers containing hops, cans are a better vehicle than bottles because no light gets into a can. And that's always been the case."

It's one of the reasons Carton only produces kegs and cans.

"At no point didn't anyone ever suggest that beer in a bottle is better than beer in a keg — and a keg is just a giant can," he said.

–Meg Fry is a New Jersey-based freelancer. And a beer drinker.

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