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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Churchkey Leans on Memories of Yesteryear

If you follow the local beer scene, you may have heard about the launch of a new beer that comes in a good looking, retro steel can. Churchkey Can Company is the name of the operation. The beer is a Pilsner, reportedly quite good.

Churchkey beer...opener included
Churchkey (that's the thingy you use to punch holes in the can) was founded by Portland native Justine Hawkins and actor Adrian Grenier (Vinny Chase on HBO's Entourage). The Northwest-style Pilsner is the creation of Portland-based homebrewers Sean Burke and Lucas Jones. It comes in at 4.9% ABV and 29 IBU.

As good as the beer may be, Churchkey is all about the steel can. They claim it harkens back to a bygone era. Indeed. Steel cans came into popular use by the late 1930s and were widely used for a lot of stuff through the sixties. Pop, beer, beans, tennis balls, motor oil, etc. I can well-remember drinking PBR and other fine beers from a steel can. I was a kid at the time, but never mind.

Use to come in a steel can...
Give the Churchkey folks credit. If you're going to release a Pilsner in today's competitive craft beer marketplace, a bit of differentiation is a good idea. The attractive steel can does exactly that. I keep hearing that stores and bottleshops are selling out of this stuff quickly. The beer may well be excellent. But the can is the novelty floating this boat.

If you're wondering if there are non-marketing reasons why they would choose steel over aluminum, you aren't alone. The issue has been kicked around on blogs and the web. Jeff Alworth brought it up several weeks ago on the Beervana blog. It's a legitimate question.

Also popular in the golden days of yesteryear...
Some of the press Churchkey is getting talks about the benefits of using steel, which has the highest recycling rate of any food packaging in the United States. Steel containers are recycled 66 percent of the time while the number for aluminum is about 58 percent.

It isn't that people necessarily intend to recycle those tin cans; it's just that steel is easy to separate from garbage using magnets at waste processing facilities. Not so with aluminum. When aluminum gets recycled, someone likely put it a curbside bin or took it to a store or collection center.

There's more to consider on the question of energy use and carbon footprint:

  • Making aluminum using recycled cans takes 5 percent as much energy as it takes to make aluminum from scratch. The number for steel is 40 percent. 
  • Steel weighs three times as much as aluminum. That means more energy is used in all phases of transporting steel, compared to aluminum. We don't want to talk about glass.

I recently talked about the crazy growth of craft beer sales in supermarkets, convenience stores and drug stores. Most of that growth is in bottled beer, still the most popular packaging for craft beer at retail. What doesn't come in a bottle mostly comes in 12 and 16 oz. aluminum cans. Steel isn't part of the mix.

Lots of these in landfills...
Cans are a great choice for beer. They don't break, don't allow light to damage the beer and offer great portability. Aluminum is a better choice than steel largely because it's lighter and, thus, cheaper to ship. As canning gains popularity (via in-house canning lines or mobile canning), we'll see more craft beer in aluminum cans. It's already happening.

If you think about this very long, you're going to start asking yourself why there's still so much glass out there. Glass breaks and it's heavy...an empty aluminum can weighs about an ounce, while an empty bottle weighs 6 ounces. Glass is still top dog largely due to the myth that beer tastes better from a bottle.

So give Churchkey credit for a novel marketing approach. But steel cans aren't coming back...not for beer, anyway. In fact, you have to wonder how long it will be before aluminum cans dominate craft beer sold at retail.That day may not be far off.

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