It's hard to believe it's been two years since we celebrated the 75th anniversary of canned beer—we're still finding soda tabs behind the office furniture. Back then, folks were starting to accept that beer in aluminum could be more than hot-wing extinguisher or beer-pong fodder. Innovative canneries extolled the flavor-friendly and environmental virtues of their packaging, while lazy drinkers like me were just happy to have lighter grocery bags. But we wondered, were craft cans for real, or just a fad?
Well, it seems they're here to stay. This year marks another anniversary: 10 years since Oskar Blues first canned Dale's Pale Ale, a beer that has become the recognizable icon of good things in little cylinders (although Brooklyn Brewery started canning their lager a year earlier). Now even giants like Sierra Nevada are getting into the game, and cans are rolling off the lines at more than 150 American craft breweries.
This is exciting news for beer drinkers who like camping, hate bottle openers, and love playing fridge Tetris. But how to sum up the state of the can in 2012? My loving editors, ever concerned about my health, gently declined my suggestion to sample the 400-plus brews now on the market. So we whittled the list down to six canned selections released in the past year that best represent how far we've come. Here is our rundown of newish canned beers that couldn't be further from the watery stuff of Super Bowl ads, eminently flavorful and forehead-crushable.
Serious Beer Ratings5/5 Mindblowing; a new favorite
4/5 Awesome, stock up on this
3/5 Around average for the style
2/5 There are probably better options
1/5 No, thanks, I'll have water.
Wild Onion Hop Slayer Illinois, 8% ABV
What does it say that in an extreme beer tasting, our favorite was the most subdued of the bunch? Only that Wild Onion has made a beautifully balanced, big IPA that knocks the style out of the park. Pineapple and bubblegum aromas contribute a character that stands out in a field of aggressive hop bombs, while resiny pine and a hint of caramel give the beer legs to stand on. A well-rounded brew, this one greets you hand-in-hand, not toe-to-toe.
Surly Abrasive Ale Minnesota, 8.8% ABV
Thanks to a miracle hop named Citra, this double IPA peacocks aromas of every tropical fruit under the sun. With one sip, our panel leapt to naming mango, guava, passion fruit—one showoff even dropped a "rambutan." Being the only poor sap who hasn't tried starfruit, I was transported to that lucky day in kindergarten when we got tropical-flavor Minute Maid at snacktime.
Fort George Cavatica Stout Oregon, 8.8%
A wisp of char and some hops in the nose do nothing to prepare you for the fudgy bite of chocolate cake that follows. Its respectable booziness stays under wraps while its cold, allowing you to savor the sweet and creamy sips.
Uncommon Brewery Baltic Porter California, 7.8%
The label says "brewed with licorice and star anise," and it's not just for show: we're talking licorice like old-timey candy. But the spice flavors blend well with the hops in this roasty, black beer, and after a couple sips you kinda just accept them. A good beer for anyone, but perfect for the weird friend who clamors for your discarded black jelly beans.
Good People Snake Handler Alabama, 9.8%
Good beer in Alabama? I'm not making fun, just surprised that a nice double IPA can come from a state where homebrewing is illegal. And it's a textbook beer at that: citrus and pineapple, no standout flavors, but perfectly executed. Here's to small victories, my would-be brewer friends.
Oskar Blues Gubna Colorado, 10%
Garlic? Yes, I conferred with my panel, and I wasn't the only one who got whiffs of garlic, onion, and even some savory hummus wafting out of this beer. Alliums' spicy stink is not unheard of with potent bittering hops like Summit, which Gubna has in spades. Some tasters were happy with this beer's rich and sticky citrus notes, but those hoping for Dale's bigger brother should look elsewhere.
Disclosure: all beers were provided as samples for review.
About the author: After serving for three years as the Washington City Paper's dedicated beer columnist, today Orr Shtuhl writes and drinks in indiscriminate order. You can follow him on Twitter at @beerspotter.