February 16, 2006 - by jason
My taste in beer runs decidedly toward hoppy ales: IPAs, ESBs, and American pale ales. And so I took note when, last summer, The New York Times commissioned a panel of four beer connoisseurs to sample and rate 24 top American pale ales.
Their winner was one I hadn’t heard of: Dale’s Pale Ale, brewed by Oskar Blues in Lyons, Colorado. Most strikingly, Dale’s Pale Ale is available only in cans. Cans I say.
Canned beer, I had always believed, was for college students and mustachioed NASCAR fans. I don’t recall having a single can of beer since before I turned 21. And yet here was a panel of beer experts raving about a pale ale delivered only by can.
Eric Asimov, the Times wine critic who commissioned the panel, went so far as to speculate that Dale’s Pale Ale came out on top not despite being canned (all of the other 23 beers were, not surprisingly, bottled), but because it’s canned:
As in every tasting of beer and ale, the biggest problem we encountered was with freshness. Mr. Carroll expressed shock at the number of ales that showed signs of damage from exposure to high heat or direct light. For all the he-man, macho attributes foisted on beer by marketing, it is surprisingly fragile and needs to be handled delicately. That means it needs to be refrigerated as much as possible and protected from direct light. Mr. Sullivan suggested that if you are selecting beer from one of those perpetually lighted coolers, choose bottles from the back, where they are at least partly protected.
In our tasting, ales from well-regarded brewers like Stoudt’s, Dogfish Head, Bear Republic and even some that made our list showed signs of poor handling. One possible solution to the light problem, at least, was staring us in the face right after the tasting, when the identities of all the brews were revealed. Our No. 1, Dale’s Pale Ale, came in a can.
A can! Not long ago, cans represented all that was wrong with the assembly-line American beer industry. No craft brewer worth a copper brew kettle would even consider putting his precious ale in a can. But times have changed, and some brewers say that cans are lighter and easier to recycle than bottles, and offer complete protection against light.
Sufficiently intrigued, I had to try some.
Dale’s Pale Ale is not exactly easy to find on store shelves; lucky for me, I live two blocks away from The Foodery, a rather unassuming little bodega here in Philadelphia at the corner of 10th and Lombard. The Foodery, you see, carries over 500 varieties of beer — the best from all over the world. (There’s not much food at The Foodery, but “The Beerery” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.)
If Dale’s Pale Ale is so good, surely, I thought, they stock it at The Foodery. And, indeed, they do — in the bottom row of the cooler at the far corner of the store.
The result: Dale’s Pale Ale is, without question, my favorite beer, ever. The slogan on the cans reads “A huge voluminously hopped mutha of a pale ale”, and they’re not lying. I’ve been drinking it regularly for the last six months, interspersed with many of my other favorites, and Dale’s Pale Ale continues to impress, can after can.
I’m convinced that their use of cans is a big reason why. I’ve never once had a bad or even mediocre can of Dale’s; it’s never skunked and always fresh, despite the fact that it’s shipped across the continent from Colorado. Plenty of other beers that I enjoy tremendously on the West coast just don’t travel well. And even for beer brewed locally (like, say, the Philadelphia’s own Yard’s Brewing Company, whose excellent Philadelphia Pale Ale placed fifth in The Times showdown) I occasionally encounter a skunked bottle. I often suspect bad seals on the bottle caps — not a problem with cans.
Beer is fragile, and, like produce, the fresher it is, the better it tastes. This is why it’s so much fun to drink at a brewpub, where the beer is brewed right on the premises.
It seems obvious that good beer comes in brown bottles instead of cans not because bottling results in better-tasting beer, but simply because all the other good beers come in bottles too.
On their web site, Oskar Blues addresses this directly:
For years the craft beer trade — us included — considered the brown bottle the best package for real beer.
Cans are lightweight and almost unbreakable. They’re also easily broken down when emptied, they’re weightless in the backpack, cooler or trash bag, and chill faster than bottles.
Simply put, cans are the best package for bringing beer to wherever beer fiends go.
They also eliminate light damage to our precious beer. (Excessive exposure to light causes a condition called “lightstruck”, which makes beer taste skunky.) Cans also reduce the risk of oxidation to our beers and keep Dale’s Pale Ale fresher than bottles can.
The straight dope: Cans are the best friend a beer and a caring brewery can have.
This is the point where, if I wanted to hit you over the head with a lesson to be learned, I could conclude with a preachy lesson about how preconceptions can keep you from trying good ideas that are staring you in the face — i.e. by pointing out that if not for The Times’s glowing review, I never would have tried Dale’s Pale Ale, and in fact never would have even considered it, simply because it’s canned, thereby missing out on what has become my very favorite beer; and that not only was my anti-can bigotry unfounded, but the fact that it’s canned is in fact almost certainly a significant reason why I like it so much — but I don’t, so I won’t.