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Cans? Low Buzz? What's Up With Craft Beer?

The very definition of "session beer" is still up for debate, with English brewers lowering the bar below 4% alcohol content for bitter and dark mild beers, American craft beer writer Lew Bryson and beer site RateBeer holding the line at 4.5% and other American craft brewers and sites including BeerAdvocate expanding that category to beers below 5%. Though Stone Brewing in Escondido, Calif., produces a Levitation amber ale roundly considered a session beer and Milton, Del.,-based Dogfish Head co-sponsored an "extreme session beer" brewing contest with craft beer site BeerAdvocate last year, beers under 5% are still seldom referred to as session beers and rarely packaged as such. Lohring says he's trying to ease consumer confusion about alcohol content by trying to make "session" synonymous with low-alcohol beers and putting his beer's alcohol content on all its packaging and tap handles -- the latter of which is highly unorthodox in beer circles -- but the brewing community's reaction to Lohring's approach has been mixed at best.

"There definitely have been people who don't like what I'm doing and some pushback on the session beer definition, but if you don't give a consumer a reference point then how are you going to expand their knowledge of what a beer can be?" Lohring says. "If it's fine to call something 'extreme,' and the craft beer community has really embraced that term, then what's so bad about embracing a term that's the opposite of that in 'session'?"

Craft beer canners were similarly isolated back in 2002, when the Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colo., became the first craft brewer to package its beer exclusively in cans. Dale Katechis, who founded Oskar Blues in 1997 and lent his name to its top-selling Dale's Pale Ale, began canning in an attempt to draw visitors to the small town of 1,400 Rocky Mountains where they could get a plate of jambalaya, a shrimp po' boy and a beer at his brewpub.

His packaging operation started with a one-at-a-time can filler and seamer bought during a trip to Canada, where Katechis noticed that roughly 50% of the country's beer was sold in cans and included seasonal varieties in aluminum. Once canning started in 2002, it was a lot easier to get the beer into cans than it was to convince craft beer lovers that there was anything in the can worth drinking. From the moment Gottfried Kruger Brewing in Newark, N.J., introduced the beer can in 1935 to the day Oskar Blues pitched its first cans of craft beer in Colorado and at brewers conventions in 2002, Katechis says the common belief was that beer cans held nothing but pale yellow swill with a taste only further degraded by the metallic flavor. Katechis logged a lot of miles and cracked open a lot of beers trying to prove otherwise.

"It's what we wanted to do, and nobody would take us seriously enough unless we had time to just one-on-one engage them, educate them and let them know that if they honestly believe that beer was designed and made to taste bad in a can, taste our beer and tell us what you think," Katechis says. "What they're learning is that it wasn't cans giving cans the bad name -- it's the beer people were putting in cans giving it a bad name. The cans were getting a bad rap."

This year, as the Brewer's Association says craft beer brings in nearly 10 billion barrels in sales, makes up 5% of the market by volume and 7.6% by revenue and has experienced 11% and 12% growth in both areas of market share, respectively, since 2009, cans and caps on alcohol volume are coming into vogue. Oskar Blues' sales have jumped from 500 to 600 barrels in 2002 to 42,000 last year, with Katechis estimating that another 60,000 barrels of his canned concoctions will leave his brewery this year.
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