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Colorado beer drinkers have a crush on cans

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It's American Craft Beer Week - seven days that even the United States Congress felt should be set aside for one purpose and one purpose only: drinking micro brews. (To find out about tappings, food pairings and other events, click here or here.) But Colorado's beer culture is worth a deeper look since 100 craft breweries operated here in 2008, producing 75,000 barrels of delicious beer.

Of particular note is the continued growth of canned micro brews, a trend that started in 2002 at Oscar Blues Brewery in Lyons and continues in 2009 with at least seven other breweries that can their beers and two that are about to start.

It's also the fiftieth anniversary of the Coors Container Company, which was created in Golden by none other than Bill Coors, who turned the all-aluminum can into the container of choice for beer drinkers. The plant is now co-owned by MillerCoors and Ball Corporation, which has a second canning facility in Golden that produces all the cans for Oskar Blues, New Belgium and most of the other Colorado craft canners. (One irony: Blue Moon, which was invented at the Blue Moon Brewery @ the Sandlot inside Coors Field, is the mega-brewer's most well-known craft beer, and Tom Hail, who runs the Sandlot, says he's been trying to convince Coors to can Blue Moon for years. But MillerCoors spokesman Tom Ryan says the company has no plans to do so.)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Coors Container Company and to laud the pioneering spirit of Colorado's latest batch of canning crusaders, Westword will feature an online article each day this week about some aspect of craft beer canning. Click the continue to button to see the first story:

The Canned Beer Apocalypse

You can thank Dale Katechis. Or you can curse him.

It depends on your view of malty, hoppy, craft-brewed flavor in a can - an unheard of notion in 2002 when aluminum-clad beer almost always meant drinking the kind of watered down American pilsners that microbrewers mocked.

Katechis, the owner of the Oskar Blues Cajun Grill and Brewery in Lyons, had been thinking about bottling the draught beer he made for his restaurant when he got an unsolicited fax from Cask, a Canadian company that was looking to expand its market. "They sent it out to breweries all over the country," Oskar Blues spokesman Marty Jones says of the fax. "Dale got it and thought, 'Wouldn't that be funny as hell," and he and the brewers laughed and laughed."

But Katechis eventually looked into it, and shortly thereafter became the first craft brewer in the nation to both make and can his own beer. Katechis started with his signature brew, Dale's Pale Ale, a highly-hopped beer close in style to an IPA. Since then, Oskar Blues has added another four beers to its permanent canned lineup, and become one of the fastest growing craft brewers in the state; it produced 19,000 barrels last year, up from 700 in 2002.

The Oskar Blues empire also includes a new brewery and tasting room, the Tasty Weasel, in Longmont to compliment the original Lyons spot, as well as plans for a Longmont restaurant, called Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids, this June.

Katechis's move - which he and Jones called the Canned Beer Apocalypse -- knocked Colorado on its can, and got a mixed reception from micro brewers across the country, some of whom thought the taste or the image of craft brew would suffer as a result.

Doug Odell, the founder Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins and current president of the Colorado Brewers Guild, prefers glass over cans for his own beers. "I think it's a classier look," he says. But he acknowledges that canned beers have gained fans. "People used to associate canned beer with cheap beer. I think craft brewers are changing that." Odell has no plans to can any of his beer, but adds, "I'd never say never."

Bottled beer is still the norm, but the canned movement has certainly caught on: super market sales of canned craft beer nationwide have grown by 28.7 percent every year between 2003 and 2008, according to a study done for the Brewers Association, while six-pack bottle sales have increased by only 2.8 percent a year over the same five years.

And it's a trend that's likely to continue. In fact, Oskar Blues has lent or sold its old canning lines to at least two other brewers in the state and given advice or tours to brew masters from many others. One of those lines is now in place at the Ska Brewing Company in Durango, which cans three of its beers. As a result, Ska lent its old canning machinery to the powerhouse, Breckenridge Breweries, which plans to start canning beer this summer. (For more on both of these breweries, check this blog again later in the week.)

"A lot of us are emulating what the folks at Oskar Blues did," says Breckenridge brewery director Todd Usry. "We're dipping our toes in the water, and we'll see how it goes."

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