Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Oshkosh Can Lines

In today's Oshkosh Herald I have an article about how our local breweries are increasingly favoring cans over bottles when it comes to packaging. I'll post the full article below for those who don't live in the Herald's delivery area.

But before we get to that, here's a look at just how different today's canning equipment is from that used by Oshkosh breweries in the 1950s. The video begins with footage of the Oshkosh Brewing Company's can line in 1956. That's followed by a recent clip of beer being canned at Bare Bones Brewery (NOTE: if the video does not appear in the space below you can access it here).

That Oshkosh Brewing Company clip is taken from a longer, video tour of the brewery. You can view that video in its entirety here. Now, onto the Herald article...

Breweries freshly embrace canning option
Oshkosh Herald, February 17, 2021
If you went to buy a six-pack of local beer a year ago, you would have come home with glass bottles nested in a cardboard carrier. Today that story would probably have a different ending. Though brewers in Oshkosh haven't entirely abandoned glass bottles, aluminum cans have become their packaging vessel of choice. The benefits of canned beer are many, but for brewers like Jody Cleveland of Bare Bones Brewery, it all comes down to quality. "Cans are so much better at preserving flavor and freshness," he says. "There's just no way around that."

In May of 2020, Bare Bones became the first Oshkosh brewery in almost 50 years to package beer on its own automated canning line. The canner had arrived in the nick of time. State restrictions following the COVID-19 outbreak had resulted in the closure of bars and taprooms which curtailed the on-premise sale of draft beer. "I think being able to can beer at that point saved us," says Cleveland, "Having that option with to-go sales helped us a ton, there's no doubt about that."

Fifth Ward Brewing took delivery of its canning line this past December. Since then the brewery has packaged a dozen different beers in cans. That would have been impossible to do in such a short time with a bottling line. "Printing six-pack holders for bottles is very expensive and it's a stupid amount that you have to buy to make it cost-effective," says Zach Clark co-owner of Fifth Ward. "With cans, all we have to do is design and print a new label. We can do that quickly. It allows us so much more flexibility. It gives us the ability to offer more variety and get beers into the retail market that we could only have sold on draft before."

Getting consumers to embrace canned beer hasn’t always been so easy. The Oshkosh Brewing Company was the first brewery here to can beer. When those cans were released in 1949, the reception was lukewarm at best. Some customers complained of a metallic flavor. The issue was soon resolved, but the prejudice lingered on.

Brewery owners Ian Wenger (left) and Zach Clark, canning beer at Fifth Ward.

In 1991, the Mid-Coast Brewing Company of Oshkosh released a new brand named Chief Oshkosh Red Lager in cans. That beer, brewed and packaged on contract at the Stevens Point Brewery, is considered by many to have been the first American craft beer offered in cans. Though the beer itself was highly regarded, the package was a hard sell. “The idea that great beer doesn't come in a can hurt me,” says Jeff Fulbright, president of Mid-Coast Brewing Company. Mid-Coast closed in 1995.

Those old misconceptions are finally giving way. "We initially heard from a couple of people who were disappointed when they saw we were going in this direction," says Jody Cleveland where at Bare Bones they no longer package any beer in glass bottles. "But that went away almost immediately. It's been all positive ever since." Drew Roth, the head brewer at Fox River Brewing, says the reaction among their customers has been much the same.

Roth still recalls his own aha moment. "Back when I first got into beer, one of the marks of a craft beer was that it always came in a bottle," he says. "But that's only because no craft breweries had canners. Once they started putting beer in cans, especially IPAs, it was eye-opening. It was way fresher tasting than anything I've ever had out of a bottle."

Roth estimates that Fox River currently puts about 20 percent of its total packaged product into cans despite the brewery not having a canner of its own. Fox River has been using the canning unit at Bare Bones along with mobile canning businesses that service craft breweries across the Midwest. Among Fox River's most recent canned offerings is BLU Bobber in tall, 19.2-ounce cans. "Ideally, I would put everything in cans," Roth says, "but the aluminum can shortage is making that harder to do."

Breweries began feeling that pinch last summer after there was a spike in demand for aluminum cans. In addition to craft brewers leaning into aluminum, there has been explosive growth in the sales of canned hard seltzer and sparkling water. But according to the Can Manufacturers Institute, the shortages should begin to ease this summer.

"I'm excited to see what happens coming into April," says Zach Clark at Fifth Ward. "We're going to be able to have our new releases here in the taproom and at the stores around the same time. We're only able to do that because of the flexibility we get from cans. The entire market has changed over the last couple of years and cans are a big part of that. People are always looking for the new thing. This is what people are looking for now."

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