There have been a lot of exciting things going on with craft beer lately, and it’s not just with the beer itself. Since most craft brewers don’t have much in the way of marketing or merchandising, they need to get creative with the ways in which they reach out to potential customers. There are an increasing number of small breweries out there that have turned packaging into an art form, finding innovative and sustainable methods of distributing their beers and engaging with beer lovers on a creative level. This is in contrast to many of the big names in the premium beer world, which tend to go the gimmicky route using specialty packaging (plastic bottles, cold-activated cans, etc.) to draw people in. One symptom of craft brewers’ focus on the total package has been the movement towards using cans for craft beer, and there are several shining examples out there of why that’s an awesome idea.
First of all, there are significant benefits to using cans rather than glass bottles. Cans are better for the environment (made from recycled aluminum), they preserve beer better (no UV light contamination), and they’re much more practical for to carry around than bottles are. Another less tangible benefit of using cans is the potential for better artwork. Take the example of the 21st Amendment Brewery out of San Francisco. Their boxed-craft-beer-in-a-can approach transcends novelty; it’s just a smart, environmentally-friendly way of doing things, and the artwork on their cans almost overshadows the beer inside (even though their beers are consistently excellent). Around this time every year 21st Amendment puts out their Fireside Chat, a Winter Warmer at 7.9% abv with a smooth, dark blend of malts and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. The name (and associated artwork) is a reference to the “fireside chats” that Franklin D. Roosevelt used to deliver over the radio during his presidency. Their Monk’s Blood and Back In Black IPA are also excellent winter brews, and the artwork alone is enough of a reason to check them out.
One of the fastest-growing breweries in Maine, the Lewiston-based Baxter Brewing Co. was quick to embrace the craft beer in a can movement, and are currently the only brewery in state to distribute their beers exclusively in cans. You might even say they’re a bit fanatical about it; their glassware is also in the shape of a can. Baxter’s flagship brew is their Pamola Xtra Pale Ale, a session beer at 4.9% abv that starts off with some sweet, bready malts that are backed up by a slight grassiness and some bitter, citrusy hops in the finish. The name, Pamola, comes from Baxter’s mascot: in local Native American folklore, Pamola was a thunder god with the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the wings and talons of an eagle, who was said to be the guardian of Mt. Katahdin (the tallest mountain in Maine, and the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail). Baxter’s latest beer, their Phantom Punch Winter Stout, is a strong, velvety stout at 6.8% abv, brewed with cocoa nibs and vanilla bean. The name is a reference to the controversial 1965 heavyweight championship rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston (which was held in Baxter’s hometown of Lewiston), where Liston was knocked down by what the press at the time dubbed the “phantom punch.”
Baxter’s “all cans” approach has proved to be ridiculously successful; since opening their doors in early 2011, Baxter is now in the midst of an expansion that will allow them to increase capacity by 400 percent (they currently produce about 8,000 barrels per year, and the expansion will facilitate the production of over 33,000 barrels). For what is essentially a small business, that kind of profitability and rapid expansion is impressive to say the least, and it was all made possible without a single annoying beer commercial or color-changing can.
Call it pretentious, but I think that approaching beer as a work of art is not such a bad idea. The results of this kind of attention to detail have had a huge effect on the overall popularity of the craft beer industry, which as I mentioned before has little to no traditional marketing presence. Maybe it’s a sign that things are changing, and that aggressive, in-your-face marketing is becoming a thing of the past. But probably not. In the meantime, there’s plenty of great beer out there to discover, and reason enough to judge a beer by its cover.