It’s in the Can: Beer in the Garden State

Photo by Brett Blackway

I was scrolling my Facebook feed the other day and came across a can release announcement from Bonesaw Brewing (Glassboro, NJ). “Wait, didn’t they just open?” I thought. Sure enough, they opened in June and are already canning their beer. Wow! Back in the old days that usually didn’t happen until a brewery was around for a while. Then I looked in my recycle bin.

All cans. Most of them from New Jersey brewers, too.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. New Jersey breweries have been canning beer since 1935 when Newark’s own Gottfried Krueger Brewery partnered with The American Can Company to test market the new container. While the test was conducted in Virginia, it was a Jersey company that led the way in what turned out to be a game-changing event in American beer history.

Some advantages were obvious. Cans are lighter and stack more efficiently making for easier shipping. For regional and national brands, that’s a big deal. Sunlight is an arch enemy to beer. Direct sunlight can start to degrade a beer’s hop character in as little as 15 minutes. If you’ve ever had a “skunked” beer, no doubt sunlight was the culprit. The can is a beer’s knight in shining armor. No light shall pass!

Somewhere along the line, canned beer came to mean cheap beer. Maybe it was because expensive European imports all came in bottles. Earlier craft brewers used bottles to set themselves apart from massed produced beer in cans. And, after all, wine comes in bottles, too. Bottles meant class.

Things ‘Can’ Change

Well, in the last five years or so, all that’s changed. Sixteen-ounce cans in four packs have become de rigeur among craft beer aficionados. It may have had a slow start in the Garden State but the canned beer revival is in full rapture here now. Bonesaw Brewing was able to get their beer into those little aluminum cylinders with the help of a mobile canning service. Iron Heart Canning brings their canning line to you which eliminates the need for an expensive in-house canning line. “The trend to cans is as strong in New Jersey as in the rest of the U.S.,” said Roger Kissling, VP of sales for Iron Heart. “Sixty percent of packaged beer—not including draft—is now in cans.” For a small brewery focused on making great beer and holding down a day job, becoming a master at packaging is too much to ask until the business experiences significant growth.

Down South

Cape May Brewing cans show brand consistency and have a breezy, beach vibe.

That’s exactly what happened at Cape May Brewing (Rio Grande, NJ). They happily used Iron Heart for their canning service until they were able to afford a canning line of their own in November of 2017. Brewery employees picked up enough know-how from Iron Heart that they substantially flattened the learning curve on the operation of their own canning line. It turned out to be a good move. “Consumer acceptance has been great, our marketing team has done a very good job with creating a design for each of our offerings that send a very consistent message,” said Bill Zaninelli, director of sales at Cape May. Cans provide a lot of branding real estate and Cape May takes full advantage of that fact. “I think the Cape May brands really stand out to the consumer. Canning gives us the flexibility to offer a 16-ounce 4 pack for specialty products and these help us create some buzz when we release new styles.” he added.

Carton Brewing’s signature bright orange branding and prominent logo make them easy to spot on a retail shelf.

Another fast-growing, well respected New Jersey brewery never really bothered with bottles. Carton Brewing (Atlantic Highlands) went from draft only directly to cans. “We were Iron Heart’s first account, the biggest mobile canner in America,” said Augie Carton, co-owner. “We were the first New Jersey craft to can.” That was back in 2013. “We always knew cans were the far better vessel for our beer.” Much like Cape May, they have also created a distinctive look that makes their cans easily recognizable on a retail shelf. The old graphic designer in me appreciates that. The cans are part art and part branding, much like the liquid inside. That synergy is one of the things that make the world of craft beer so interesting to me: the art on the label is as interesting as the art in the can.

Photo at top by Brett Blackway.