30 Jun 2010 @ 6:45 PM 

I’m always a little amazed by the bizarre cultural dichotomy that beer finds itself in.

It seems almost insane to me that the image on the left (one of the least salubrious Beer Magazine covers) could somehow influence the image on the right.

On one hand, beer is the domain of the 1970’s frat boy culture. Girls in bikinis, kegs, hot dogs, and alcohol abuse. What could be more American? Beer is also undeniably blue collar. At the end of a long shift at the factory, you can imagine a group of guys heading to their local to throw back a pint or two, but you can’t really imagine them sipping a Fuzzy Navel or a glass of Merlot.

On the other hand, beer is swiftly joining wine in the high-end marketplace. It is being recognized for its strengths in food pairing and you are increasingly likely to see someone drinking a goblet of great beer at a fancy restaurant. It’s not just wine and cocktails anymore.

I think about this a lot whenever somebody brings up craft beer in cans.

I recognize that cans are a good delivery vehicle for beers. They are little kegs. They don’t let light in and have the opportunity, when filling, for a totally oxygen-free experience. They are lighter, less expensive, and have a smaller impact on the environment. They are a brilliant packaging option.

But! Cans have the cultural cache of beach, ballpark, and BBQ. Macros dominate the can market and when you think about beer in a can, you pretty much can’t avoid thinking about Bud Light… or.. maybe warm Schlitz. It’s not a reflection of the quality of the beer in the can, it’s a fact that over the past 100 years what’s been in a can has been industrial light lager. It’s like how when you hear the word “forty” in relation to a drink your brain automatically goes here.

I guess I wonder when we’re likely to see this:

Craft beer geeks? We understand that great beer comes in a can, but we’re a small, small part of the market, and even then I don’t usually think of canned beer as beer dinner material. I think of it as “drunk” material.

I see the craft market going to two directions right now. I see it shooting for accessibility. I see it broadening its audience in the long search for market share and perhaps making some sacrifices in image as it goes. I also see it going down the fancy-pants-and-dinner-jacket road in an effort to be taken seriously in the culinary world. I see big, elegant bottles with fancy labels being served at cheese pairings, but that way lies inaccessibility and a battle across the long inlaid roads of wine.

So it all makes me wonder: Can craft go in both of these directions at once? Or will we inevitably see a market segment split where part of the market seeps back toward appealing to the lowest common denominator while still making big-flavored beer and part of the market takes its cicerone to go stand next to the sommelier?

They may not make significantly different products right now. After all, the market is young and while our brewing imagination runs wild, it does so within parameters that are only just starting to expand. Twenty or thirty years down the road when these cultural differences are more stark, will we have two craft markets instead of one? Or will cans find a place at the dinner table?

Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 30 Jun 2010 @ 06:45 PM



Responses to this post » (15 Total)

  1. meg says:

    People who aren’t familiar with Dale’s Pale Ale (or other Oskar Blues brews) seriously piss me off when they diss the beer I’m drinking (or that I brought to the party) because it’s in a can. I tell myself it’s their loss, more great beer for me, but it still annoys me to no end.

  2. meg says:

    That doesn’t mean I want OB to switch to bottles – far from it. Cans are great for cabin weekends that require mile(s)-long hikes through the woods. When I’m at home I usually pour it in a glass anyway, whether it’s from a can or bottle. I’m just validating your assessment of the opinion apparently held by most people – including beer snobs who should know better.

  3. Ingrate says:

    I think it was the last beer festival I attended in Durham where I heard someone spout off disbelief at seeing Oskar Blues. Their loss.

  4. Big Tex says:

    On old song begins this way:
    On tap, in the can, or in the bottle… to me it will all taste the same…

  5. christopher says:

    Most consumers generally don’t know much about the products they buy and that’s unlikely to change. I’m sure Erik could pick out a great volleyball and get value out of the extra money spent but I can’t so I’d buy the 2nd cheapest one. There will be low-end consumers, high-end consumers, and most people somewhere in the middle.

    Similar arguments could be made for box wine. Many quality wines come in boxes but because of the origins of box wine many people assume box = low quality.

    Corporations need to be where the money is whether its allows true dedication to the art or in merely imitating that art. Big breweries mimic craft brewers because it moves units (and maybe more nobel reasons). Craft brewers need to appeal to wider audiences to stay economically viable. Beyond that some craft breweries are content making porters and pale ales while others only make quajillion hopped, wild fermented, oak kissed, cascadian dark ales. I’d think there is room for the industry to cover all the bases.

  6. erik says:

    Oh, I think there’s room in the industry. Going back to wine, we’re WAY behind wine. There are 5000+ wineries in the U.S., and only 1500 breweries. There’s room for all of them, but I would say that 99% of them occupy the same marketing space in the same way that beer has for the past 100+ years.

    But that seems to be diversifying for beer. It did when craft started to distinguish itself from industrial lager, and I wonder if it will again, as a line between fancy craft and less-fancy craft.

  7. Seabass says:

    to the previous comments,
    -Meg probably came to Oskar’s cans because of the cabin and few choices situation as there are not a whole lot of cans available in general when you go out to shop for beer scanning across brands and breweries. This is a legitimate choice and one that many make = good for Oskar.
    -the brewery in the blog topic picture covers all the bases and does so fairly well as far a s I know. Cans, 12oz, 750ml, kegs, from an all inclusive Brooklyn lager to their high and mighty three star restaurant brewmaster’s table beers. It is possible without loss of credibility or fussing to get your product out in all packages without much despise =bad for Oskar.

    Erik, who packages their cans without oxygen pick up?

  8. erik says:


    I was given to understand that unless you had a very small canning line – those little manual crimping things – that canning was done in an oxygenless environment. No?

    I didn’t realize that Brooklyn canned any of their beers. But yes, I see what you’re saying, it IS possible for a brewery to get its beer into a range of environments, but I don’t think that most craft breweries in the country are in the unique position of Brooklyn is in. They have the ability to reach all markets, but do most breweries? Not unless they significantly change how they’re doing business. There’s still an awful lot of the “drink this, it’ll get you trashed” mentality floating around out there, which isn’t necessarily conducive to reaching outside of your base market.

  9. Steve says:

    I think a line between fancy and less-fancy craft beer is already starting to develop by the breweries who are creating more distinct levels within their own product lines. They have a line of what has become “regular” craft beers (ambers, pale, etc) that appeal to a wider audience and then a second tier of speciality beers (typically released in larger and sometimes fancy bottles and sold at a higher price) that appeal more to the beer geeks. New Belgium is a good example as they have their lineup of regular beers (Fat Tire, Ranger, etc) in sixpacks of bottles and cans and then came out with the Lips of Faith series in 22oz printed bombers (and moved their existing La Folie under that line). There are lots of people that love Fat Tire, but would never drink any of the beer styles in the Lips of Fath series. Boulevard Brewing has a lineup of regular beers but also produces their Smokestack Series in caged and corked bottles. Brooklyn Brewing is pretty much the same.

  10. erik says:

    Those examples are each of relatively large, quite successful craft breweries, though. They have the luxury of multiple product lines.

    What about your young 3-5 year old craft brewery? In a lot of cases, the decision to (for example) go to cans isn’t a decision about starting a new product line, it’s a decision about, “Let’s finally get some packaged beer out there.” but it is also a decision to enter a niche, maybe even because of these larger craft breweries and their multiple product lines.

  11. Hey Erik – I’d like to know why beer companies don’t use beefcake in their advertising – especially the one who think/if they think they’re advertising beer to women. What a joke! The thing is – reverse discrimination isn’t what women want. Authenticity and accuracy. It’s pretty darn easy to do this IF you’re paying attention. Cheers – (see you in Denver?) Ginger

  12. erik says:

    Hey Ginger —

    I’d like to know that as well – it works for Old Spice, and that is a product specifically for men.

    I’m going to chalk it up to a lack of imagination, myself.

    The plan is Denver, though probably wearing my NC Beer hat rather than any other one. 🙂

  13. […] written about cans before and in general have felt very favorably about them, but time – and dumping more bought beer […]

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