For his beloved Boston Lager, Boston Beer Company founder Jim Koch couldn’t just jump on the can bandwagon, a craze flowing into major brewers nationwide from Baxter Brewing Company in Maine to Sierra Nevada in Chico, California. Instead, he had to completely reinvent the bandwagon’s wheel. The result: a brand new can fit for a nearly 30-year-old beer.
Koch has been giving cans the cold shoulder for decades, according to The Boston Globe writer Jenn Abelson, who wrote a great piece recently on the staple New England beer producer’s long and often rocky road to getting its signature lager cloaked in aluminum rather than the traditional glass.
“For decades, company founder Jim Koch snubbed aluminum containers because of the metallic flavor they impart to liquid,” wrote Abelson. “His resolve cost the Boston-based brewer millions of dollars in potential revenue from airlines and sports arenas, a price Koch said he paid to preserve the quality of a brew whose tagline until recently was: ‘Take pride in your beer.'”
Today the company’s slogan is “For The Love of Beer” – a line you can almost imagine Koch uttering as the pressure mounts to put one of Boston’s most recognizable and beloved beers in a can, the vessel that’s quickly becoming the medium of choice for breweries desperate to keep up with the times.
To his credit, though, Koch refused to put his beer in just any can, instead initiating a multi-year project–codenamed Bunker Hill–to create a can that wouldn’t sacrifice on taste. He tapped Peter Gladstone, Boston Beer Co.’s director of advertising and innovation, as project manager and contracted with IDEO, the innovation and design firm with an office in Cambridge that’s responsible for Apple’s first mouse and TiVo’s digital video recorder, to name a few landmark achievements.
The process has taken years and many iterations, but the pursuit was built on an early discovery, according to Abelson: “Conventional cans don’t allow enough air into people’s mouths as they drink. Turns out, much of what consumers believe they taste is actually smell — that’s why food tastes so bland when people are congested.”
So while lite beers once widened the mouths of their cans to shovel more of the good stuff more quickly into college co-eds’ mouths, there’s actually credence to that approach for more tasteful brews, albeit in an manner that’s a bit more refined. There’s more, too. An hourglass shape starting below the beer’s top, in conjunction with the wider lid, was found to only appeal to the hands of blind taste testers, but also to their taste buds, distributing the beer further back on the palate while requiring drinkers to open their mouths wider, thus allowing more air in and more appreciation, in turn, of the beer’s hops, grains and fruitiness.
The Bunker Hill team, at long last had achieved what they and Koch originally set out to do: create a can that replicates the experience of drinking from a pint glass.
The innovation will require significant and costly changes to the can manufacturing process. It will also require a drinking public to not only accept Boston Lager in a shiny new package, but in a package that looks and feels unlike a beer can has since we first cracked a Budweiser back in high school, and our parents did the same before us.
Gary Dzen, a writer for Boston.com’s 99 Bottles blog, gave the new can a try, and seems to think it’s achieved only part of its goal. “The can design Boston Beer Co. chose showed small but noticeable differences from a standard can,” he said. “It’s not like sipping from a glass, but it’s actually superior to drinking straight from a bottle.”
That’s both a rave review and a potentially crushing blow, depending on how you look at it.
I applaud the effort to innovate on a design that’s been the accepted norm for as long as I’ve been drinking anything from a can.
Personally, though, I wonder if it will have a major effect on my drinking experience one way or another. Can manufacturers have long since figured out how to coat their cans so the tinny taste isn’t imparted on the liquid therein. So was creating this new can really worth the effort?
I look forward to the chance to find out–and relish knowing, perhaps, that a 12-pack of Sam Adams Summer Ale cans could soon accompany me to the beach.