Will Mainers pay for craft beer in cans?

It’s a question that will finally be answered in about a week as Baxter Brewing cans hit stores.

Baxter founder Luke Livingston said “surprisingly few” people he’s spoken with have been reluctant to try the brewery’s Pamola Xtra Pale Ale and Stowaway IPA in cans.

Still, in Maine, more than other states, bold and flavorful beer in cans is a rarity.

Just 10 years ago, metal cans were solely a vessel for mass-produced beer.

In 2005, Samuel Adams brewers released a “Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights” that included the provision “Beer shall be offered in bottles, not cans, so that no brew is jeopardized with the taste of metal.” Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch has since changed his mind on the topic, but it came to symbolize the rift between craft can enthusiasts and those who think the can itself cheapens a beer.

Cans are catching on in many parts of the country, especially Colorado and California. In Maine, only one craft brewery has ever canned beer. That was Stone Coast in Portland, which closed in August 2008.

Since home brewing was legalized in 1978, bottles were a logical pairing for craft beer. Most brewers start out home brewing, and bottles can be hand-filled, then cleaned, sanitized and re-used, while cans are single-use and require expensive equipment to fill and seal.

Pioneering craft brands like Anchor, Sierra Nevada and New Albion bottled their products, leaving cans to the mass-produced brands.

By the time a blues bar and brew pub called Oskar Blues in Lyons, Colo., started canning beer and hand-sealing it in 2002, it was considered blasphemous. Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis now says he did it as a joke and as a gimmick to get people talking.

It’s not a joke anymore. By 2009, Oskar Blues was the 44th best-selling craft brewery in America out of a field of about 1,600, according to the Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group. The Brewers Association hasn’t yet released its Top 50 list for 2010.

A rough start

Still, when Stone Coast bought a small canning line in 2004, beer distributors discouraged them, recalls brewer Stewart Mason.

“We had a bunch of bottles on hand; they were like ‘Don’t do cans,’” Mason said.

They canned only their most accessible beer, Sunsplash Golden Ale. He said the minimum order for empty cans from the Ball Corporation made canning more than one style impractical.

“You had to buy an exorbitant amount of cans,” Mason said.

Mason said the cans never caught on, which he attributes less to the stigma among craft beer buyers than to the attitude of distributors, who couldn’t see cans fitting into the shelves of store craft beer displays.

Brent Ryan, a graduate of Colby College in Waterville and co-founder of Coastal Extreme Brewing in Newport, R.I., said his brewery bought a canning line about six years ago for their Hurricane Amber Ale.

“We kind of looked at it and if you’re out on a boat, or you’re on the beach, and you want to drink something besides yellow, fizzy beer, you’re kind of screwed,” Ryan said. “Pretty much that’s the only kind of beer that comes in cans.”

These days, he said, cans make up less than 5 percent of the brewery’s sales, but that’s due to limitations of their canning line rather than a lack of demand.

“With the equipment we have, it takes two people an hour to pack 18 cases of beer. It’s really, really slow,” Ryan said. He said the brewery is looking to expand its canning, but it would require an expensive upgrade.

Other New England breweries have been expanding into canning lately. Harpoon Brewery in Boston canned their Summer Beer and India Pale Ale last summer, and reported brisk sales. Magic Hat will offer its flagship ale, #9, in cans this summer.

New England Brewery in Woodbridge, Conn., sells several of its beers in cans.

Livingston said he recently spoke with Samuel Adams brewer Jim Koch, who told him he sees craft beer cans becoming the standard.

Better for beer

Resistance to canned craft beer is based more on tradition than science. Cans block out light (light can give beer that stale, skunky flavor) and the polymer lining inside a can means the beer never touches metal.

Ryan said his Hurricane Amber Ale tastes fresher in cans. “Our canned beer tasted more like the beer coming out of our tanks than our bottled beer did, which is what you want” as a brewer, he said.

They’re better for the environment, too. Not only do cans ship better and more cheaply because they’re lighter and more space-efficient than bottles, they’re also more likely to be recycled.

For brewers, the more compact shape means they take up less room in the brewhouse. That helps, Livingston said, because Ball’s minimum order size is half a truckload, more than 80,000 cans.

The Baxter Brewery received two full truck loads last Monday, totaling nearly 350,000 cans.

Livingston said that far from Stone Coast’s experience with canned beer years ago, distributors now are excited about canned beer after watching the growth of brands like Oskar Blues in recent years.

And for customers, they’re more user friendly. At the Nateva Festival last year in Oxford, employees searched cars and confiscated bottles to keep glass out of the camping area. Only cans were allowed on the fairgrounds.

Baxter is coming

Baxter kegs will roll into area establishments on Jan. 28. Livingston said that although the filling of kegs has begun, the beer won’t go out to anyone until Friday.

“We don’t want to play favorites,” Livingston said. However, Lewiston-Auburn bars and restaurants will be the first to serve Baxter beer, if only hours before it’s available in other towns.

On Saturday the 29th, Baxter will be in Millinocket at Pelletier Loggers Family Restaurant Bar and Grill, which is owned by the Pelletier family, featured on the TV show “American Loggers” on the Discovery Channel.

The event will be filmed for the season finale of “American Loggers.”

Livingston said he was approached by the bar manager at the restaurant. Because Millinocket is at the base of Mt. Katahdin and close to Baxter State Park, it was a good match. For Livingston, free promotion on the Discovery Channel was an obvious choice, and the night will feature a three-bar pub crawl.

In the second quarter of 2011, Baxter will be in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where canned craft beer like Oskar Blues and 21st Amendment Brewing are already big sellers.

Next month, www.yourcans.com will go online, where Baxter drinkers can submit pictures of themselves drinking Baxter on the beach, on boats and other places glass is banned. On Facebook, Baxter Brewing has nearly 1,000 fans without selling a can yet.

Between the hype and marketing, and a rapid growth in canned craft beer sales, Livingston said he hopes to be ordering more cans within a few months.

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Baxter’s beers:

Pamola Xtra Pale Ale

This is an accessible, very light ale that should appeal to people who want to drink a local beer that’s not too bitter or filling. Baxter is already selling cans at the brewery.

Stowaway IPA

This India Pale Ale is bold with a complex hop flavor but doesn’t overdo the  bitterness. This will be the only regular-strength Maine IPA you can buy in the store that will satisfy fans of bold, hoppy American IPAs.

Can’t wait?

Can’t wait another week or two for Baxter brews to hit the shelves? Can’t make it to the brewery to buy some straight from the source?

These canned craft beers are already available at local liquor stores. (By the way, if you don’t want to taste the metal on the lip of the can, pour your beer into a pint glass. It’s better that way.)

Lion Stout from Ceylon/Lion Brewery

This classic export stout from Sri Lanka has been tastier and cheaper since it became available in cans rather than bottles recently.

Red Racer IPA from Central City Brewing

A very bitter beer that will be too hoppy for most, this IPA comes from British Columbia, Canada, but tastes like it was brewed yesterday.

Belhaven Scottish Ale from Belhaven Brewery

Since they began selling this in clear glass bottles, draught cans are the only way to buy this balanced, easy-drinking ale without it tasting skunked.

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