It's like a rite of passage: You learn to drink using shitty beer, usually something out of a can. (For me, it was Milwaukee's Best, aka The Beast.) Later, when you graduate from high school, you move into the higher-ed version of beer, most likely something in a bottle. This, people say, is because bottled beer is better in quality, and canned beer has a distinct metallic taste.
John Dunfee, owner of Arctic Craft Brewery, says that's a load of crap.
"What most people need to realize ... is that beer spends its entire life in a metal container," he says. "Whether it's going through the brew kettle, the fermentation tanks, the conditioning tanks, it's all metal. The only time a beer sees glass is in the packaging phase. A can is just a smaller version of the big tank that we store it in."
Plus, whether an aluminum can is produced for holding soda, juice or beer, the factory lines it with an inner coating to ensure the metal won't affect the taste of the drink.
Busting the metallic myth is just one reason Dunfee, 38, cans Arctic's On-On American Pale Ale rather than bottling it. Other factors include cost cans are cheaper than bottles and environmental impacts. Arctic's cans are made from 85 percent post-consumer product, and Dunfee believes that more people recycle aluminum than glass. Aluminum also cools faster than glass, saving energy and refrigeration costs. And there's the sales aspect: People can take cans to golf courses, state parks and beaches. Not so with bottles.
His eye on the skeptics, Dunfee staged his own blind tasting last summer. He packaged some On-On in bottles, put some on tap and left the rest in cans. He asked random customers to sample the beers.
"We found that people actually prefer the On-On Ale out of the cans versus out of the tap or bottle," he says.
Hash it up
Arctic Craft, in operation since 2002, started canning in June 2008. It was at Manitou Springs' Craft Lager Fest that Nick Cartwright, founder of the Colorado Kimchi Hash House Harriers, approached Dunfee about the running club adopting Arctic Brewery as its home base. (For more on harriers, see "Hops, sips and jumps," Drink, Feb. 22, 2007). Eventually, Cartwright picked out some hops and asked Dunfee to design a beer for the group. Dunfee wrote the recipe for the amber-bodied, slightly hoppy beer in about 20 minutes and brewed it the next day. On-On Ale named after a harrier term loosely meaning "all right" was born.
"Not ever even having tasted the beer, [hashers] will buy it just because of the logo," says Dunfee, who regularly mails empty cans to international hashers by request.
Knowing he had a built-in market, Dunfee made On-On Ale Arctic's first venture in (sort of) mass-produced beer. He plans to start canning his milk stout as well, hopefully by midsummer.
Squeezed into a garage-like warehouse on Platte Place, just off Platte Avenue, Arctic Craft isn't much to look at. But Dunfee has put his sweat into the place, from hooking up the electrical and gas to connecting plumbing and retrofitting machines. And during each of my visits, the bar and three high-top tables, with cold industrial brew tanks just feet away, were full with regulars.
One wall is stacked high with canned beer in eight-packs that sell for $8, and pallets of empty cans hang suspended in the air, waiting to be filled. Dunfee says he aims to quadruple the size of production within two months. He'll swap out his two 15-barrel tanks for 60-barrel ones and take over the unit next door, doubling Arctic's square footage.
Right now, his operation distributes to around 50 bars, restaurants and liquor stores along the Front Range. In time, Dunfee hopes to expand well beyond Colorado.
"Eventually, I would like to be a national label," he says. "Ultimately, it's my goal to be in every state."
Trial and terroir
Dunfee, a Colorado native who says he left high school half a credit short of graduating, is largely self-taught in almost every area of his life, including brewing. After nine years of homebrewing with a friend, Dunfee paid a visit to a homebrew store, where he discovered multiple varieties of grain.
"Not having a clue what different adjuncts [unmalted grains] were, base malts or anything, we just started buying grain," Dunfee says. "We made a batch of beer, and it was the worst-tasting concoction you could ever imagine.
"Don't kid yourself we drank it. We finished it on principle."
After that, Dunfee bought an ounce each of individual grains and made teas with them, so he could learn the taste and character of each one. He did the same thing with various hops until he could start grouping and pairing complementary flavors. Small batches and trial and error led to some distinctive beers, including a delicious and potent vanilla stout and a seasonal pumpkin ale that rivals Bristol's Venetucci Ale in taste. At any given time, the brewery has 10 to 15 beers on tap, with a few handles rotating random creations.
Though Arctic is the only brewery in town that's canning right now, Dunfee thinks it's becoming a trend among microbreweries. New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins started canning its popular Fat Tire Amber Ale last summer, and might do the same with its Sunshine Wheat this year, according to spokesman Brian Simpson. Rocky Mountain Brewery here in town has the necessary equipment to start its own canning operation.
"We're competing with the macrobreweries, like Anheuser-Busch and Coors," Dunfee says. "Getting into the cans and getting into the same playing field as them creates a larger customer base and awareness of the products."
So while you may be used to the stigma that canned beer is good only for drinking games, Dunfee will keep working to change your mind.
"The customer is really who we're trying to target," he says. "We're trying to get a beer that tastes good to the consumer."