Pop top on craft beer? Can do

Triangle Brewing of Durham is out to battle bottle snobbery

Staff WriterAugust 27, 2010 

  • Retailers signed up to sell Triangle Belgian-Style Strong Golden Ale and Triangle White Ale include:

    Whole Foods in Durham and Chapel Hill

    Sam's Quik Shop in Durham

    Carrboro Beverage Co., also known as Tyler's Bottle Shop

    Weaver Street Market stores in Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill

Craft beer that comes in a can? Are you serious?

Most definitely.

Triangle Brewing in Durham hopes to set itself apart from the competition by selling cans instead of bottles as it expands into the retail market.

The company's partners, whose hand-crafted beers have been available until now only on tap in restaurants and bars, know they're going against the grain in an image-conscious market by installing an automated canning line at their small brewery on the outskirts of downtown Durham. They know cans are viewed in some circles as déclassé containers worthy only of mass-produced beers such as Budweiser and Coors.

But partners Andy Miller and Rick Tufts are betting more than $100,000 - the price of their new canning equipment - that it's a stigma they can overcome.

"There's a huge misperception that bottles are better than cans," said Miller, 38, who, along with fellow home brewer Rick Tufts, 36, three years ago decided to turn his home brewing hobby into a business. "I would argue that cans are more effective."

The two have been friends since their high school days in Connecticut, although they weren't home brewers back then. Instead, "we were just working on what we call research and development," Miller said.

Triangle Brewing isn't stepping into uncharted territory here. In the early 1990s, a Colorado craft brewer, Oskar Blues, started to turn around the image of canned beers by putting Dale's Pale Ale - an India pale ale that boasts 6.5 percent alcohol - in a metal container, said Julie Johnson, editor of All About Beer, a Durham-based national magazine for beer aficionados. Johnson also is a former beer columnist for The News & Observer.

"People pooh-poohed but, in blind tastings, Dale's wiped the floor with their competitors," Johnson said.

Today more than 50 craft brewers across the country sell canned concoctions, according to the website of the Brewery Association, which represents the fraternity of small, independent brewers that employ traditional brewing methods.

Craft beers are a relatively small but vibrant segment of the beer industry. The $7 billion in craft beer sales rung up last year accounted for 6.9 percent of total beer sales in 2009, according to association data. During the first half of this year, sales of craft beers rose 9 percent by volume even as overall beer volume declined 2.7 percent.

Triangle Brewing's expansion plans are being fueled by its impressive sales growth. The company, which has just three employees, sold 680 barrels last year, up from about 350 a year earlier, Miller said. The company projects sales will climb to 1,250 or 1,300 barrels this year - a projection that doesn't account for cans, which are an unknown factor.

Profits this year

The company isn't yet profitable. Every time it has gotten close, Miller and Tufts plow more money into the business. But Miller added, "by the end of this year we will be operating fully in the black."

Today its beers are sold on tap at more than 100 locations, including the Village Draft House and Woody's at City Market in Raleigh, and Satisfaction Restaurant and Bar and James Joyce Irish Pub in Durham.

Craft beers traditionally have bottled their brews for a simple but compelling reason: Money.

For years, canning equipment makers focused exclusively on the mass-market breweries and their equipment was just too expensive for craft brewers, Johnson said. That changed about a decade ago when a Canadian manufacturer, Cask Brewing Systems, introduced smaller-capacity equipment that was more affordable and metmicrobreweries' needs.

Cans are well-suited to combat the sworn enemies of beer freshness - light and oxygen.

"Cans keep out light better [than bottles] and there is a smaller air space in a can," Johnson said, referring to the space not filled by beer in a container. "If you are careful about it, the beer you get from a can should be every bit as good as the beer you get from a bottle."

Today's cans also are lined to avoid that "metallic" taste. Another plus is bottles are banned at many parks, beaches and golf courses.

"Cans actually travel better," Miller said.

A Chapel Hill craft brewer, Top of the Hill Restaurant Brewery, began selling its beer in cans about five years ago. Rather than investing in automated equipment, however, it did the canning essentially - and painstakingly - by hand, brewmaster John Withey said.

"We were the first mini-cannery in the South," Withey said.

Sales were brisk - so much so that Top of the Hill couldn't brew enough product to fulfill the demands of its own customers as well as the needs of local retailers, Withey said. So two years ago it began limiting sales of cans to its own premises, and it plans to stop selling cans altogether once it goes through its current supply.

Now Top of the Hill is gearing up for a different type of expansion next year - producing distilled spirits, such as vodka and gin.

"We believe it's a huge potential market," Withey said. "We believe that craft distilling will be a new trend."

Triangle Brewing expects to start canning this week and anticipates the first cans of Triangle Belgian-Style Strong Golden Ale (8 percent alcohol) and Triangle White Ale will appear on retailers' shelves by the beginning of next week.

A six-pack is expected to sell for about $8.99, a common price point for craft beers.

The distribution plan calls for limiting sales to Durham and Orange counties initially, with expansion into Wake County early next year.

Whether your beer comes in a bottle or a can, however, Johnson recommends drinking it from a glass.

"If you drink straight from a can or bottle, you bypass your nose - and aroma is half of flavor," she said.

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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