LEWISTON, Maine — Canned beer isn't just for swilling anymore.
Baxter Brewing in Maine has joined a growing number of small craft-beer breweries distributing their brews in cans – just like mainstream mass-produced beers – rather than in bottles. A decade ago, it's believed there weren't any U.S. craft breweries canning their suds. Nowadays, nearly 100 sell at least one beer variety in metal.
Baxter Brewing founder and president Luke Livingston said cans are good for the beer, the environment and consumers, because they're easy to take to places like camping trips and golf outings. Still, cans in some quarters have to overcome the stereotype of chugging contests or a beer-bellied John Belushi crushing cans on his forehead in the 1978 movie "Animal House."
When Livingston decided to open a small brewery sans bottles, some people told him they would never stoop to drinking beer from a can – that bottles were way better, and draft beer was the best.
"My retort to those people is that draft beer comes out of a keg," Livingston said at his brewery, located inside a former textile mill in this central Maine city. "And what's a keg? A keg's just a big can, it's a big metal container."
As the craft beer industry took off in the 1990s, small local and regional breweries distributed their ales, bocks, stouts and other varieties in bottles.
Craft beers generally are made in small batches by small breweries and are typically more complex in taste than mainstream beers. U.S. craft-beer brewers sold 282 million gallons in 2009, accounting for 6.3 percent of U.S. beer sales by value, according to the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colo.-based group representing craft brewers.
While craft beer has been sold predominantly in bottles, cans have been equated with mainstream beers such as Budweiser, Coors and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The tiny Oskar Blues brew pub in Colorado broke that mold in 2002, when it began canning its Dale's Pale Ale beer by hand with a tabletop canning machine. Oskar Blues Brewery, which is widely credited with starting the craft beer-in-a-can trend, brewed about 18,600 gallons of canned beer that first year.
It was such a hit that the owner opened a brewery in 2008 with a high-speed canning line. Production this year is expected to reach 1.9 million gallons, with six different styles of beer.
Spokesman Chad Melis said Oskar Blues has tried to educate beer drinkers about the benefits of cans "one beer at a time."
"It's a little bit of an educational curve for people to get over the preconceived notion that cheap beer is in cans," Melis said.
Since 2002, other microbreweries have jumped on the bandwagon. Baxter Brewing is the latest, putting its Pamola Xtra Pale Ale and Stowaway IPA in cans.
A decade ago, it was hard for a microbrewery to can beer because canning equipment was geared toward mass producers, not small-scale breweries, said Julia Herz of the Brewers Association. And can companies required large orders of cans beyond the means of small-scale beer makers, she said.
But canning equipment has changed and small breweries can now order small batches of cans, she said. At the same time, craft beer drinkers aren't averse to the idea of cans the way they once were.
Cans improve quality, Livingston said, because the beer isn't tainted by light and is exposed to less oxygen than bottled varieties. They're also more conducive to bringing on canoe or camping trips, to the beach, on boats or on the golf course.
As for the environment, Livingston said, cans take less fuel to ship because they are lighter than bottles. Consumers, he added, are twice as likely to recycle cans as bottles.
Recently, Livingston and brewmaster Michael LaCharite examined their canning machine, capable of filling and seaming 30 cans a minute, the day before canning was to commence. Out back in a warehouse, 44 pallets were stacked with 342,000 empty cans ready to be filled.
The beer is bound for retail shelves across Maine the first week of February. Livingston projects sales of 70,000 cases – that's nearly 1.7 million cans – this year.
Livingston became aware of canned craft beer when he ran a beer blog. He also took note that most canned craft beer was out West and was relatively unheard of in the East.
"My marketing light bulb went off, and I said somebody's got to do that around here," he said.
Livingston wrote a business plan, raised $1.2 million from investors and loans and started what he says is the only brewery in the East to can all of its beer.
Nearly 100 craft beer breweries in 39 states now sell at least one style in a can, said Russ Phillips, of Northampton, Mass., who tracks the numbers on his website, CraftCans.com.
"The reputation that has been attributed to canned beers is slowly being knocked down," Phillips said. "People are getting OK with the idea of better beer in a can."