Mitchell Radlund has a taste for craft beer. Among his favorites: Modus Hoperandi, an IPA from Colorado; Surly Bender, a brown ale from Minnesota; and Fat Tire, an amber brew from Colorado.
But there's a twist: Radlund's suds of choice don't come from a bottle.
"Most of my favorite craft beers only come in cans," the 24-year-old Humboldt Park resident said recently as he nursed a La Crosse Lager at Cans, a Bucktown bar that has more than 35 types of canned beer on its drink menu. "I do like bottles too, but I have noticed a growing popularity in cans in the three years I've been drinking beer … almost like a lifestyle choice."
Beer that comes from cans still might be associated with subpar flavor fit only for a frat house, but that image is beginning to undergo an upgrade as craft breweries in Chicago and beyond more frequently wrap their suds in aluminum. The breweries say the cans protect a craft beer's delicate flavor, save money and are less harmful to the environment. Many drinkers are bellying up to the trend–and some have completely embraced it.
In Chicago, Half Acre Beer Company will bid farewell to 12-ounce bottles and become the city's only brewery to sell its beer in cans when it makes the switch to 16-ounce tall boys; the move is targeted for early May. The decision by the North Center brewery, which still will sell special releases in 22-ounce bottles, comes on the heels of similar moves by Indianapolis-based Sun King Brewing Company and Minnesota-based Surly Brewing Company. (Reps from Chicago breweries Goose Island, Metropolitan and Two Brothers told RedEye they have no immediate plans to can their specialty suds.)
Nationally, sales of 18-pack cases of canned beer rose 5 percent from 1998 to 2006, according to the most recent Brewer's Almanac, published by industry lobbying organization The Beer Institute. That increase virtually kept pace with sales of 18-packs of bottles, which rose 7 percent. Across Illinois, canned beer sales eked out bottles in 2008,
45.4 percent to 44.6 percent, according to the almanac, while draughts accounted for most of the remainder of the market.
Of course, the "cans vs. bottles" argument is as dated as beer packaging itself, and a recent surge in small-scale breweries switching to cans will serve only to fan the flames of friendly debates in barrooms and basements everywhere.
"This is a century-long pendulum that is swinging away from mass-market products and mega-brands toward a movement of authenticity and rare products, and for beer, often times that happens in cans," said Randy Mosher, the Chicago-based author of "Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink."
The reasons Half Acre is making the switch from glass are simple, according to president and founder Gabriel Magliaro: Cans protect the brew from harmful light, they're lighter, and they work well for the brand's image.
But what about the taste?
"The beer is more protected [from light] now, and the can gives our beer the best shot at keeping the characteristics we intended for it," Magliaro said.
Not only are beer cans now made from aluminum instead of the steel of yesteryear, but there also is a safe, food-grade lining inside that prevents the beer from coming into contact with the actual metal.
Science aside, there also are practical advantages to drinking from cans. Since aluminum is easily crushable, cans are a better choice for outdoorsy types who spend their weekends kayaking, camping or anywhere else where glass is prohibited, such as beaches. And in hot weather, beer cools faster in aluminum cans, Mosher said.
Yet some beer drinkers aren't ready to let go of the bottle just yet. Jaime Gonzalez, 31, said he drinks canned brew only if that's the last available option.
"Bottles and drafts have a much cleaner flavor," the Wicker Park resident said. "[With bottles], you taste the beer and not the metal associated with it."
Mosher, the author, said he doesn't fall on either side of the debate between bottles and cans. That's because, much like wine, a brew's subtleties in texture and taste are best appreciated from a different, independent container.
"No nice beer should ever be drunk out of the package, bottle or can," he said. "You're doing a disservice to a really good beer by drinking it out of anything other than a glass."