Shaun O’Sullivan, the brewmaster at 21st Amendment brewpub in San Francisco, has been extolling the virtues of canned beer for many months now, maybe longer. He’s been researching the improved technology for a while now, convinced that craft beer in cans is the wave of the future. But all that planning is going to begin paying off any time now. Shaun and his business partner Nico Freccia invited me to join them at the Ball Plant in Fairfield, California to watch the first cans of 21st Amendment beer manufactured. I’ve seen literally hundreds and hundreds of bottling lines, glass plants and even watched hand blown glass being made in Jamestown, Virginia but I’ve never seen beer cans being made. So I jumped at the chance to visit a can factory.
Left: The first Krueger can as shown in The Brewer’s News. Right: A digital recreation of the same can.
You know what they say. “Everything old is new again.” Beer cans debuted in 1935 when a now obscure New Jersey brewery, Gottfried Krueger, introduced their Krueger Cream Ale in cans in Richmond, Virginia. The advantage in those days was to protect the beer from becoming lightstruck. According to the BCCA account, “[b]ut the beer can really made its debut some 14 months earlier — just before the repeal of Prohibition. American Can Company had engineered a workable beer can. All that was needed was a brewer willing to take the pioneering plunge.” It tested very well and the rest is, as they say, history. Cans were very popular from the beginning but still did not outsell bottles until around 1969. That trend reversed itself again sometime in the 1980s or early 1990s when bottles again were the most popular package. While canned beer has been stigmatized as inferior to glass, the technology to make the cans, by coating each can with a protective internal coating so that the beer never comes in contact with the metal, has removed the issues that led to the tinny, metallic flavor that often leached into canned beer.
And slowly but surely, craft breweries have started canning their beer. Ed McNally’s Big Rock Brewery of Canada was probably the first craft beer I can recall in cans and Portland Brewing canned their McTarnhan’s Ale for sale on airplanes almost a decade ago. But Oskar Blues of Lyons, Colorado, with the help of Marty Jones, my friend and colleague — he also writes for the Celebrator — was the real pioneer of good beer in cans with their Dale’s Pale Ale leading the way. Since then several other craft breweries have begun canning their beers. Now 21st Amendment’s name can be added to the list. They’re going to put two of their beers in cans, the Watermelon Wheat and their IPA. And I believe they may be the first craft brewery in the Bay Area to can their beer. Ukiah Brewing was first in California when they came out with their Ukiah Pilsner last January. Today I watched the Watermelon Wheat cans being run and had an extensive tour, which was great fun.
Shaun O’Sullivan and Nico Freccia examine the first test cans to insure the colors and everything else are correct before commencing the full run.
Nico and the can’s designer sign off on the can proofs.
Large rolls of aluminum are used to create each can.
The rolls first run through a large machine that stamps out the initial shape of the can.
They look like small ashtrays and at this point the metal is still pretty thick.
It is then stretched in stages until it’s in the familiar can shape and much thinner.
And then receives an internal coating so that the beer never actually touches metal.
The cans are then washed and oven dried in preparation for printing.
Then the blank cans are printed using a a four-color process.
Here the plant was running some Pepsi cans through the line after being printed.
Here’s a Quicktime movie of the Pepsi cans moving swiftly on the line. You can either download the movie to your desktop or just click on the link to play it in your web browser (assuming your web browser has the quicktime plug-in installed).
The first 21st Amendment cans running on the can line.
Here’s two more Quicktime movies of the 21st Amendment cans on the line and then a closeup of them moving tha almost resembles an optical illusion. You can either download the movie to your desktop or just click on the link to play it in your web browser (assuming your web browser has the quicktime plug-in installed).
The cans on the conveyor belt before being palletized.
A full pallet, 21 rows high, of 21st Amendment beer cans.
A close up of the pallet of beer cans.
Nico and Shaun in front of the first pallets of 21st Amendment cans.
The full first run of 21st Amendment beer cans for Watermelon Wheat in the warehouse.
Shaun and Nico in front of the warehoused cans. Now the next step is to fill the cans, which should begin next week.
UPDATE: Part 2 of this story, how the cans are filled and sealed.
UPDATE: My review of the Watermelon Wheat in a can.
As a can collector since I was about 9 years old (that’s 33 years ago), the advent of microbrewed beer in can is exceptionally exciting for me. I can’t wait to get my hands on these cans. Cheers to Shaun and Nico for having the ‘nads to make this heroic jump. I hope to hell it tastes as good as it does out of the tap at 21st Amendment. — Brent Ainsworth, Novato CA
Microbrew in cans scares me. I’m a big traditionalist when it comes to bottles. I just think that putting beer into cans might cause the beer to be treated differently. Easily shotgunned by college students who are looking to get wasted. It’s a lot harder to chug from a bottle. I am also quite fond of popping open a bottle and pouring it into my favorite pint glass, the affect of pouring it from a can is quite exotic.
Also, this is a trend the rest of the world may shy away from. How will the Belgians use bottle fermentation in cans? The old world traditions will stand strong accross the globe, Americans may associate cans with all beer and start trying new beers, but that (in my opinion) may lead to mass consumption of a product that will won’t be as appreciated.
Great coverage of 21A. I just visited last month from PA and was quite impressed by 21A,
Magnolia, Toronado, ah you get the picture! Nice layout here at your site of their canning
operations. I’ve had the Oskar Blues and Sly Fox (PA) canned. I definitely think there’s a
psychological hurdle to get over. But, if you can do that, I think these brewers are so
aware of these issues that they’ll do everything possible to get it right. Like your site;
keep up the great work.
Regarding Derek’s comment (No. 2), for some reason I trust that technological advancements in the past 10-120 years will assure that the can-drinking experience will not be sufficiently worse than the bottle-drinking experience — especially if you pour contents of a can into a proper pint glass. And knowing Shaun, I don’t think he’ll be wouldn’t OK this project unless he was totally assured that the taste of the canned product accuratly reflected the taste he desires when he makes his fine ales.
I meant 10-20 years (duh).
John Bolling says
I wish I could be at the 21A for the TBN party, but I can’t make it. I hope that you will have the cans rasdyf ro the Booneville Brew Fest, I will be there.
Just for the record Ukia Brewing was the first in Ca. to can there brews and David’s Ale Works was the second
Jackie Chan says
Unfortunately, they are not canning the beer with a real canning line; they have an extremely labor-intensive, slow 2-can filler and seperate seamer requiring them to physically handle every can and move them around before they are seamed. The air-levels will not come close to that of a real canner (or even a good bottler), there are substantial microbio issues as the system is slow and not sealed, and there will likely be massive variance in carbonation (and probably taste as a result of all the factors I have listed). In a nutshell, these cans will have terrible shelf-stability and it will probably be a crapshoot every time you crack one open.
A real canner is great for beer… but this ain’t that:)
Jet Li says
Jackie Chan has it all wrong. I’ve tried canned microbrew from Oskar Blues in Colorado, Ukiah Brewing up in Ukiah and Caldera in Ashland, OR. They use the same small canning equipment and the beer is completely consistent in carbonation and flavor. I’ve had a few six packs of Ukiah Pilsner in cans that I’ve been hauling around for six months and once they’re chilled, they are every bit as good as fresh beer from the tap. I think Jackie is thinking about small canning technology in the 70s. It seems pretty evident that all these brewers know what they’re doing and wouldn’t trust their hand-crafted products to equipment that might jeopardize their flavor. The folks at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the World Beer Cup agree–all three had gold medal winners in a BLIND tasting that came from cans….You’re a has been, Jackie Chan.
Bruce Lee says
In response to Jackie:
“Unfortunately, they are not canning the beer with a real canning line; they have an extremely labor-intensive, slow 2-can filler and seperate seamer requiring them to physically handle every can and move them around before they are seamed.”
Slow…labor-intensive, hmmm…sounds suspiciously like, uh…small batch craft brewing to me. If the degree of automation of the brewing and packaging equipment defines the quality of your beer then, hey: craft beer sucks and Miller and Budweiser rule I suppose. Craft brewers should just give up – and we’ll all go buy ‘real’ beer from ‘real’ breweries. And separate filling and seaming apparatus? Yes..just like every canning and bottling line in the world. The filling is done by one piece of equipment and the seaming or capping by another. The difference is that in large systems the packages are moved on conveyors instead of passed by hand (and they are not ‘sealed’ during that transfer).
“The air-levels will not come close to that of a real canner (or even a good bottler).”
Jackie is right there – they are usually much lower. Large counter-pressure systems start by trapping air in the cans and bottles – and then they try to remove it as best they can..they’re getting better at it…pretty soon they might even get close to the old fashioned, slow, ‘one at a time’ way.
But like any ‘hand’ process they are subject to variability attributable to the competence and care of the operator. Once again though – must we assume that just because it’s possible to have an incompetent, uncaring operator there WILL be one? There would be no GOOD craft brewed beer anywhere either if this assumption were true. Good beer from small ‘hand operated’ breweries exists because small brewers love what they do.
“…it will probably be a crapshoot every time you open one”. Jackie I’ve been taking those odds ever since 1984 when I tasted my first microbrewery beer. And I do it every time I open a beer I’ve never tried which – thanks to the craft beer industry – has happened thousands of times since then. Some of those beers actually sucked. If I stopped trying them after I tasted the first bad one I would have missed out on tasting the very best beers in the world. So you, Jackie, should stick to Bud, and leave the good beer to the rest of us gamblers.
Bruce (faked my own death) Lee
Nico Frecia says
While Jackie Chan is misinformed and ignorant of the facts regarding today’s small canning systems, his commentary does give rise to an opportunity to discuss the facts and set the record straight.
Our two-head canning system is indeed manual and it does require labor. However, the terms “labor intensive” and “slow” are thoroughly relative ones — two people operating our canning line can produce 20 cases per hour of finished beer. That would be 150 cases of beer canned in an eight hour day. No bottling equipment we have used could come close to this volume and no system that could go any faster than this small canning system would fit into our tiny brewery. On your site, you show a video of the entire process and most viewers would agree it is surprisingly quick.
Regarding air levels, Jackie Chan’s comment, “The air-levels will not come close to that of a real canner (or even a good bottler)” is just plain completely wrong. The equipment manufacturer, Cask Brewing of Alberta, Canada, sent beer samples to the independent Siebel Laboratories in Chicago for testing. To quote the report’s summary of their findings:
“Four cans and bottles of the same beer were randomly chosen and sent to Siebel Laboratories in Chicago. Siebel test results revealed that there was no significant difference in O2 level between the bottled and canned product. Furthermore, the O2 levels were extremely low, measuring at under 0.125 PPM.”
The final comment from Technical Director Dennis Bryant sums it up:
“The result reported less than 1.0% of saturation”…”We do feel that this is an extremely low level of dissolved oxygen”
For the complete test results, go to
Our two-head filler uses a long tube fill, done under a CO2 blanket. This means that a CO2 tube reaches to the bottom of the can, filling it with CO2 gas just prior to fill. As CO2 is heavier than air, it forces all the air in the can up and out the opening. This evacuates all the air in the can, the can is filled at 30 degrees Fahrenheit to limit foaming, and then capped on foam so that there is little or no air under the seal. Most commercial can fillers are short tube DUMP fillers. There should be virtually no dissolved air pickup using long tube fillers. Dump fillers need elaborate evacuation methods, nitrogen drips etc to achieve airs as low as long tube versions. The equipment manufacturer has tested big canner beer packaged by one of the largest beer producers. Cans came in at over 3 ml air. They had a very large canning system. Big size and automation does not necessarily mean low airs.
And finally, regarding consistency, microbial contamination and carbonation levels. We brew the same Watermelon Wheat Beer and IPA for canning that we have been brewing for six years. Our process is sanitary from start to finish and we are confident that the beers will have a microbially stable shelf life. Our bright beer tanks are tested using a Zahm & Nagel CO2 tester and internal carbonation levels are adjusted to exactly where we want them prior to canning. The beer runs from the bright tank through a special glycol chiller and directly into the filler to ensure 30 degree Fahrenheit filling which eliminates foaming and guarantees our dissolved CO2 levels remain intact.
Jackie Chan’s final comments, “In a nutshell, these cans will have terrible shelf-stability and it will probably be a crapshoot every time you crack one open. A real canner is great for beer… but this ain’t that.” again, are simply ignorant of the facts. Twenty five small breweries across America and dozens in Canada have been canning beer with these small canning lines for years. If there were significant quality and consistency issues, these breweries would have long ago abandoned the can. On the contrary, canned beers are wining gold medals in blind taste tests everywhere. I’m not just talking about beer competitions (Caldera, Ashland, OR) but also about taste tests done in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
The time for good beer in cans has arrived and we intend to be a leader in both the canning field and the battle against canning misinformation.
21st Amendment Brewery
Mark (aka Beerman 49) says
What a hoot reading “Jackie Chan”‘s comments & the responses thereto. I’m not into watermelon & don’t like wheat beer in general, especially the unfiltered varietes (tho have enjoyed raspberry-flavored ones that were filtered). Once the canned IPA is available, I’ll get 62go (too bad we can’t take a 6 into Telcomm Giants’ Park). I know Nico & Sean (great guys & brewers!)& a lot about the $$ aspects of the “independent” brewpub biz (thanx to Alec Moss, longtime friend & brewmaster at Half Moon Bay).
21st A took the plunge into canning; I have no doubt that the products will be damned good. This is a well-run business – opened just ahead of the dot-com bust & survived! They knew going in that they’d have 85-100 “heavy” days/year from events at 24 Willie Mays Plaza guaranteed. Further, they got a full liquor license to cater to the “fad” cocktail freaks, plus those who like a nice “chaser” (cognac/single-malt scotch/high-end whiskey) after a few pints. Unlike Pyramid & other brewpub chains ruled by the corporate “beancounters” & “marketing experts”, they’re more able to react to the local scene & adapt more quickly. Their menu always has mixed reaonably-priced “pub grub” with “trendy” food, but with nowhere near the changes I’ve seen at Pyramid Berkeley the last 7 yrs. Bottom line: Profit on food is bonus – the big $$ margin is in the liquids, & 21st A has the variety to serve anyone.