Canned Craft Beer Is Great- And Here’s A Festival To Prove It

Canned Craft Beer Is Great- And Here’s A Festival To Prove It

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

The 5th annual Sun King CANvitational takes place in a couple of weeks (Sept. 9). Over 3000 people will spread out along Georgia Street in downtown Indianapolis to partake of more than 250 craft beers from over sixty breweries. And every single taster poured that day will come straight from a can. If that concerns you, then this festival is exactly the one you need to attend – canned craft beer is a great way to experience these products at their best.

Sun King Brewing originally designed the event as a way to highlight canned craft beer and as a way to get friends from breweries across the country to come visit Indianapolis. Sun King is proud of the Indiana and Indianapolis craft beer scenes. The festival has grown over the years, and still continues to grow, as word of mouth from brewery to brewery has made this a preferred destination for pouring. Consequently, Sun King has been able to keep most of the breweries they have had pour in years past, while still being able to add new breweries each year. The high number of breweries allows for short lines and space to move around.

Just to show you how this growth translates to a good time for you and me, Sun King organizers noticed last year that the attendees tended to spend more time around the booths of breweries that do not distribute in Indiana and those that have many nationally sought after beers. So, this year they invited more breweries of that ilk. That tells me three things; 1) Sun King cares about the people attending its festival, 2) the crowd for this festival is significantly more educated than at most festivals, a large percentage of attendees recognize rare and sought after beers, and 3) we’re in for a very good time.

The Sun King CANvitational is back – same size and better than ever. image credit: Sun King Brewing

This Year’s Festival. For example… this year’s iteration of the CANvitational will have amazing breweries, such Austin BeerworksMelvin Brewing from Jackson WY, Pizza Port Brewing from Bressi Ranch, CA, Cigar City from Tampa, FL, Firestone Walker from Paso Robles, CA, Rahr & Sons Brewing out of Fort Worth, TX, and Piney River from Bucyrus, MO. Tell me honestly, how often do you get to drink from these breweries? Walter and I have a bottle of the Santa’s Little Helper from Pizza Port that we can’t bring myself to drink just because we like having a Pizza Port beer in the cellar!

Beth Belange from Sun King told me, “Many of these breweries are on the roster because we both can, and they tend to be the pioneers and early adopters of canning, like Oskar BluesSurlySan Tan, Austin Beer Works, and DC Brau. But these days everybody is making the move to cans, so I guess the message we’ve been spreading about why cans are better for beer is being heard.” Now Sun King is focusing less on early canners and more o people doing it amazingly well now and with whom Sun King has a personal relationship.

With all these great people offering you beer, it could get hard to keep track of your day. Luckily, Sun King will be providing a tasting notebook this year with each of the breweries listed (and most of the beers). This is an idea that has been picked by the better festivals recently. Walter thinks it is one of the best festival tweaks of the last few years. We had one for the Midwest Sour, Wild, and Funk Fest and the Denver Rare Beer Tasting, but didn’t for the Midwest Belgian Beer Fest – and I can tell you that we missed it at that last festival in St. Louis.

Importantly, one of the stipulations of the festival is that the breweries need to have a representative there. There might a few exceptions because of timing, scheduling, etc. but for the most part when you’re having a beer poured for you at the CANvitational it is being done by an owner, brewer, or a representative from the actual brewery. Each brewery will be pouring three-six different beers at the CANvitational, and this could get messy without the playbook they are offering this year, but archaic Indiana laws mean that these representatives can’t actually pour your beer for you. This, and the logistics of moving all those cans out in the morning, means that you, me, and everyone else should look for and thank the dedicated volunteers.

Georgia street is a great venue for CANvitational. Hey lady, don’t look into the camera – just act natural! photo credit: CANvitational

The volunteers come from the eight different charity partners for this year’s festival – IndyHubArt with a HeartIndy City MarketGleaners Food BankSecond HelpingsLittle Red DoorOutreach Inc., and Joy’s House. Each partner will provide 10-12 volunteers, so remember this when someone empties your dump bucket. In addition to these fine folks, Sun King will also have many employees, “CANbassadors” they call them, out and about to make sure your day and the brewers’ day goes smoothly.

Around 3000 attendees (1500 early access) will have access to wonderful craft beers from across the country (more than 30 states are represented), but you won’t have to worry about lines. Sun King maximizes the number of breweries and the space on Georgia Street while limiting the ticket sales to ensure that everyone will have almost no wait in getting a beer and that the representatives and brewers will have time to talk. By limiting the festival to 3000, the space is more than adequate for the purpose. Plus, there are many local restaurants and hotels close by to make your weekend complete.

The GA attendees will have a great time, but if you choose to VIP, you’re going to get a few bonuses. There will be special early entry beers from many of the breweries, and the taster glass will be replaced with a galvanized carabineer cup. The limit on early entry tickets means that they will go fast, especially since this is a festival that plays a bit more into the hands of the experienced craft beer fan. When I asked Beth about the brewery list and the focus of the festival, she agreed that, “We have found that this crowd already has a knowledge of craft beer.  There are, of course, going to be people that will be new to craft beer at the event, but we have found that the majority of our attendees are interested in experiencing the event and talking to breweries about their beers in a more intimate setting.”

Advantages of Canning Craft Beer. So why have this kind of specialized festival? Unfortunately, there are still those people that push back against canned craft beer, thinking that the can imparts a metallic taste to the beer or that canned beers don’t mature as well as beers packaged in bottles. This festival is a chance to talk to those people about the advances that have been made in canning technologies in the last 5-7 years and the advances that are making canning even more beneficial for craft beer.

Sun King rev CANlaboration for 2017. Double 00 session ale using proprietary hops technology from Barth-Haas Hops in Germany

Sun King owners Dave Colt and Clay Robinson had always said that when Sun King chose to package beer (part of the original business plan) it would be in cans, harkening back to the days of their youth and collecting beer cans. So when Oskar Blues pioneered canning of craft beer in 2002 using plastic can liners (which in truth, have been around since the 70s), it was a good omen for the coming of Sun King. While SKB learned how to can from the manufacturer of their system around 2010, Oskar Blues was extremely helpful in learning how to navigate the world of canning while going through rapid expansion and growth.

Side by side blind taste tests have proven that canning craft beer does not produce a metallic taste and is often preferred to bottled beer. Yet some people still believe that canning has side affects. The plastic liners that keep the beer from touching the metal of the can may contain BPA (bisphenol A, soon to be a thing of the past as new BPA-free liners will be standard in a year or so), a chemical that has been banned from children’s toys because of a potential to cause cancer in infants. However, numerous studies have shown that the levels of BPA in canned beer are below any level that might cause health problems and in many cases are lower than those in canned sodas. And in truth, if you’re letting your infant drink canned beer or soda, you’ve got bigger issues with which to be dealing.

Canning craft beer allows for varied volumes – pints, crowlers, 12 oz., even the innovative 8 oz. cans that Flat 12 uses for the Pinko Russian Imperial Stout. Cans are also cheaper and easier to move and store (they’re low mass and stackable), and they extend the life of a beer because they are impermeable to light and don’t allow oxygen to enter. While cans do have some air when sealed, they don’t let any more air inside. Bottle caps on the other hand, are a constant source of new oxygen because they don’t seal completely – it’s true!

Here is an example of the Alumitek resealable can by Ball Corp. This is the Chaka, a belgian ale collaboration between Oskar Blues and Sun King in 2012. photo credit: craftcans.com

Issues with Canning Beer. Despite these advantages, there remain some practical issues that keep canning from being for every brewery. Canning is expensive in that it requires higher volumes of beer to be committed, since cans must be purchased in larger numbers. In addition, canning is not readily done by hand, unlike bottling which may be done on a per bottle basis without additional machinery. Along with all these cans comes all that cleaning; instead of one keg to make sure is sterile, it’s 124 of cans.

For Sun King, it took more than two years of testing and trials to make sure that beer which is great when stored and sold cold would also be great when stored in cans at room temperature. It’s nice to know that SKB cared enough about their patrons to get it right before they started canning – not everyone does. As Beth says, “At the end of the day you are only as good as the last beer that someone had from your brewery.”

There is also the issue of how you want your cans to look. Ball Corp. (out of Muncie, yeah!!) or Crown cans are high quality, but they make you order so many, and moving from printed cans to stickers or shrink sleeves add costs of their own if you want to do special releases. This is why flagship beers tend to be the ones that get canned, a brewery needs to invest in something they are pretty sure will sell. Of course, these are usually the beers that build the brand and pay the bills, so it isn’t too odd that they end up as the ones in cans.

Canning on a mobile line via Indiana Mobile Canning or Michigan Mobile Canning. Sure, a good picture, but he is drinking on the job?! Notice that they are canning Evil Czech Beer. photo credit: Michigan Mobile Canning

Innovations and Conclusion. Canning craft beer is becoming easier and cheaper with the advent of new technologies and smaller machinery. Smaller canning lines will allow more breweries to can an appropriate number of beers, and mobile canners (like Indiana Mobile Canning, and iCan Solutions) have helped as well. Sun King is one of the few breweries that have a canning line that can accept the Alumi-Tek 16 oz. resealable pint cans (see picture). There are also cans that have a completely removable lid to turn them into a better drinking vessel (I have no experience with these, do they help?).

Even with the known benefits of canning and in part because of the continuing issues associated with the cost of canning, only 10% of craft beer in 2014 ended up in cans. One of the reasons was that canning lost its cache when it came to be associated with cheap, mass market beer, even as the canning process got better and better. Sun King was only the 53rd craft brewery in the United States to can their product, and one of the first to sell that beer in stores. Since then, the trend has been upward and is still gaining momentum. Larger breweries that swore they would never can beer (such as Lagunitas and New Belgium) are now taking advantage of the canning technologies. Still not convinced? Come drink some canned beer from some of the best breweries in America at the CANvitational and learn the error of your ways.

tickets:   http://www.ticketfly.com/event/1425130-sun-king-canvitational-indianapolis/

A special shout out to Jessica Leonard and Chad Childers of Inklin Customs for my new avatar image. See them for all your Magic: The Gathering custom work – some of their acrylic custom cards are made by Anthony Noel of Zwybie’s Custom Works. See this article about his tap handles, flight boards, and other craft beer paraphernalia.


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