Brewing on the last frontier: can-do attitude

By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Elaine Howell. Kenai River Brewing Co. is adding a canning line to its operation, starting with its Skilak Scottish Ale.

Brewers and brewing science have been in the forefront of technological development throughout history. From the invention of agriculture to the industrial revolution to refrigeration to pasteurization, the brewing of beer has been a driving force. Before Henry Ford created an automobile assembly line, American brewers showed him how with their automated bottling lines. Even intellectual inventions, like brand names and vertical corporate integration, can trace their lineage back to brewing.

One technological innovation that has been a mixed blessing for brewers is the can. Canned beer was a relatively late invention, since the pressure produced by carbonation required a much more sturdy can to contain it, as compared to most foods. The first canned beer, produced by the Gottfried Krueger Brewery of Newark, N.J., went on sale on Jan. 24, 1935, in Richmond, Va. But, like most new technologies, this first effort left much to be desired.

The early cans were steel, eventually being replaced by today’s lighter aluminum. They required a can opener, replaced in 1963 with pull tabs and in 1975 with today’s fixed or stay tab cans. Cans also evolved from being three pieces of metal (top, bottom, and side) to today’s two-piece design (can and lid).

The greatest improvement over the decades has been in the can lining. The first cans were lined with a moldable plastic called Vinylite. While it kept the beer from reacting with the metal, it often imparted its own “tinny” flavor that some of us remember from the canned beers of our younger years. Fortunately, the linings inside modern beer cans are just about perfectly inert. Usually it’s impossible to tell by taste whether a beer came from a bottle, can or keg.

Today, cans are a much-superior container to a glass bottle for craft beer, especially here in Alaska. They are lighter, making them easier to carry and cheaper to ship, and are recyclable to boot. They are safer for outdoor activities, as there is no risk of breakage. They are perfectly opaque, which ensures the beer inside is totally protected from light. Even beers in amber bottles can be damaged by UV rays in light, producing light-struck or “skunky” beer. The seal on a can is much superior to the crown cap on a bottle, better protecting the beer inside from being oxidized by tiny air leaks.

Given how long they take to get here, if you’re buying an imported beer and are given the choice between getting it in a bottle or a can, the can is always a better bet.

Even though cans are superior in just about every way, craft brewers have been relatively slow to adopt them, mainly due to the cost involved. If brewers want to start retail packaging their beer, they have a choice to make. A single bottling line can bottle multiple varieties of beer, just by changing which labels you load into it. For canning, a specific can must be ordered and stored for each different beer, meaning canning represents a much more significant commitment of a brewery’s often limited resources.

Still, one of our local brewers is taking the plunge. As I write this, Kenai River Brewing Co. is working on canning a 20-barrel batch of Skilak Scottish Ale. According to Doug Hogue, head brewer, canning has been in Kenai River’s business plan since before it opened. It’s just taken them this long to line up everything needed.

The brewery’s goal is to work up to producing about 500 cases per month by summer. The bottleneck is not the canning system, which can produce about 25 cases an hour, but brewing capacity. To help out, they recently purchased a new, 20-barrel fermenter, which will be dedicated solely to producing Skilak Scottish for canning. Looking further ahead, the brewery plans to begin canning its Sunken Isle IPA around June, which will mean bringing in another 20-barrel fermenter to support that.

This is a tremendous step forward for both Kenai River Brewing and all craft beer lovers on the peninsula and throughout the state. Having its beer available in cans and on sale in retail outlets in Anchorage and beyond will help raise the profile of our local outstanding craft beer scene, likely bringing more visitors to our area.

For peninsula locals, it means when those relatives and friends visit us from Outside and we take them fishing or hiking, we’ll be able to offer them quality local Alaska beer, without lugging a glass growler or plastic pig around with us. And they can take a six-pack home with them, to share with their friends, who will then have one more reason to visit Alaska.

Kenai River six-packs are scheduled to go on sale today at the brewery.
Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. His regular column, Drinking on the Kenai, appears the first Wednesday of the month in the Redoubt Reporter.

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