When Buckeye Brewing rolls out this year's Cleveland Beer Week 2013 beer in a can, it will be reviving a grand Cleveland tradition of locally canned beer that ended in 1984 with the shuttering of Schmidt's Brewing. Buckeye's beer will soon be joined by others from Portside Distillery and Brewery, Rocky River Brewing, and doubtless others as the "craft can" trend officially arrives at local breweries. The man behind this craft-can invasion is Dan Blatt, whose Buckeye Canning is the first and only mobile canning operation in the state of Ohio. The 42-year-old recently moved to Northeast Ohio from Denver with his wife, who is from here. Blatt's been brewing beer for 20 years, and he had every intention of launching a local brewery — until he discovered mobile canning.
"When I started doing this, I really thought I'd have to pitch the brewers on the benefits of the can," explains Blatt. "But no, everybody wants it, and the consumers are demanding it."
Arriving on the scene at the optimal time in history — when the uptick in local breweries coincides with the boom in canned craft beer — Blatt says that he's barely had to make even the softest of sales pitches. Still, he rattles one off like a well-oiled TV pitchman.
"You can takes cans to the beach, you can take them to the golf course, you can take them on a boat, you can take them to a pool, you can take them to a National Park. They get cold quicker, they're lighter, easier to ship, recyclable...," he goes on.
While small brewers are increasingly hip to the benefits of the can, almost none can afford the expense of installing a canning line at their brewery. The cost for a canning line can exceed a $100,000, and that's for a hulking piece of equipment that takes up space and gets used maybe a few times a month.
"We're a startup, and we'd rather not invest a lot of money into a canning line right now, so Buckeye Canning comes in at the perfect time for us," explains Dan Malz from Portside, who will soon be canning his Man o' War Imperial IPA.
The process could not be more painless for breweries, promises Blatt. "We drive up with our truck, we unload our equipment, we hook directly up to the brewery's brite tanks and we can their beer at a rate of 35 to 40 cans per minute. The cans are labeled, packaged in cardboard, loaded onto a pallet, shrink-wrapped and fork-lifted into their cold storage. We're like ghosts."
For the longest time, canned beer held as much cache as canned Spam. But the days of craft beer drinkers turning up their noses at tinned beer are quickly fading into history.
"Oskar Blues was the first really good craft in a can, and they kind of broke the mold and convinced a lot of the skeptics that quality beer could be sold in a can," says Malz of Portside. "Before that, the only beer that was in cans were macro-beers. After that, the craft beer industry saw it and the trend exploded."
Buckeye Brewing's Garin Wright says that "being first" was never his motivation for canning his suds. "I did it because I thought this particular style of beer that I'm putting in it would be good test to the qualities of a can," he explains. "It's a style that would allow you to perceive any negative effects, unlike a big hoppy product that would mask any bad effects."
The German-style lager features a low hop profile that will allow Wright to judge for himself the professed benefits of cans. "As a brewer, our No. 1 enemy is oxygen. The can, which is seamed, will prevent more oxygen from entering the container. That's huge. It's also impervious to light."
Local beer drinkers will find Buckeye Brewing's beer at Heinen's as early as the week of September 23. Ed Thompkins, beer and wine buyer for the local grocer, says he was thrilled to stock his coolers with a quality local canned beer.
"There was a great canning tradition in Cleveland," he says. "It's great that a truly local brewery is reviving it."
Thompkins likens the craft can trend to the screw-top wine bottle phenomenon. "They were viewed as inferior and said to cheapen the product, and look at them now," he notes.
But like all trends, he warns, the canned beer one has its limits.
"Bad beer in a can is still bad beer."