The Boston Beer Co. is on the cusp of canning its iconic Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and Jenn Abelson of The Boston Globe has the tantalizing tale of company chairman and co-founder Jim Koch‘s journey to the pull-tab. The journey had the Tom Clancy-esque codename of Bunker Hill and involved substantial research as well as the sort of expenditure that only the biggest players in the craft beer movement are capable of making:
The quest for a better can took the Bunker Hill team to a plastic coffee lid collector in New York, a museum of beer cans in a Taunton basement, and tailgating parties at Gillette Stadium. The two-year effort cost more than $1 million, including the hiring of a renowned design firm and professional beer consultants, as well as the purchase of expensive canning equipment.
But, while most everyone dates the introduction of canning in the American craft beer movement to Dale Katechis‘ fall 2002 decision to can his Dale’s Pale Ale, there were actually earlier comers to the party—including Sam Adams.
Calgary-based Cask Brewing Systems had in 1999 introduced a manual canning machine that could can two 12-ounce beers at a time. This innovation proved crucial for the American craft beer movement in two ways: one, it was small enough to fit on a tabletop; and, two, it was affordable (roughly $10,000 in 1999 money), several times less expensive than the $250,000-and-up canning systems only otherwise available.
Selling the innovation to craft brewers in America, however, proved now-famously difficult for the Canadian firm (they had already sold the canning system to fellow Great White Northerners, a tiny concern out the Yukon Territory becoming in 2001 the first craft brewer in North American to can). Cask Brewing Systems’ sales reps at the 2002 Craft Brewers Conference in Cleveland were confronted with declarations along the lines of that’s “the dumbest idea,” “no one in the craft brewing industry would put their beer in cans,” etc.
But! American craft brewers had already done so; three, in fact.
A couple of caveats. These were all at the time largely contract-brewing operations, with resources manifold more bountiful than what Katechis could imagine in the wilds of Colorado. And the canning was done in larger breweries, where Cask Brewing Systems’ tiny innovation would’ve elicited chin-stroking bemusement.
The first American craft beers to be canned in the U.S. were Pete’s Brewing Company‘s Summer Brew (pictured), done through the Minnesota Brewing Company and then Stroh’s, both in St. Paul, in the mid-1990s, and Minneapolis-based James Page’s beers under contract at August Schell in nearby New Ulm. And! Over the pond, Koch’s Boston Beer Co. allowed its cream ale sold in the U.K. to be canned under license through Whitbread from 1996 to 1999. Production was “modest,” according to the company, and production predated Dale’s Pale Ale in cans by three years.
Also, I should note that perhaps Boston Beer had a delicious sense of irony in codenaming their canning effort Bunker Hill. The June 1775 battle in what’s now the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown was a victory for the British, though the Americans fought with such tenacity that their ultimate triumph seemed inevitable to those paying close attention. — T.A.