Monday, June 1, 2009

Cans!: Interview with Dave Thibodeau, Part VI

This is Part VI of Soggy Coaster's interview with Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing Co. Previous installments are posted below. The remainder of the interview will be published in installments over the next few days:

Soggy Coaster: So Ska recently started canning Modus (Hoperandi IPA) and True Blonde (Ale) in addition to the ESB. A lot of brewers seem to be jumping into canning, not just Ska. What’s the reason behind that? What’s attractive about canning?

Dave Thibodeau: I think there’s a lot to it. There’s certain things about the quality of bottles that I think are better. But on the cans side, one of the quality issues with any bottle, unless it’s an opaque bottle, is sunlight. Sunlight is a beer spoiler. That’s why you see most craft beer in an amber bottle, as opposed to a green bottle or a clear bottle. That light-struck beer, it’s an immediate reaction. That’s what causes the skunky flavor. You know when you open up a green imported bottle, you can smell the skunk when you open it. So keeping the light out is a key thing.

The other thing is your carbon footprint. Aluminum is a more recyclable product. If you were to just throw a bottle in a landfill, or a can in a landfill, the can’s going to get crushed and take up a lot less space. Although, neither one of them is going to break down anytime soon. So there’s that. There’s also the transportability of it. You know, if you’re backpacking and you want some beer the first night camping or however far in you get, the fact that all you’re hauling out is a crushed, empty aluminum can as opposed to heavy bottles, that’s kind of nice. And in our neck of the woods, and in Colorado in particular, that’s a great thing. Because I always did backpack with bottles, and it sucked hauling them out. It takes less fossil fuels to create the can.

I guess the final thing I would say is there are a lot of places where glass isn’t allowed because it’s glass. Whether it’s a lake or a river or a golf course or a park, there are a lot of places where plastic or aluminum is OK but glass isn’t. You know, the taste is a little different. You’re just catching another side of the market that people are really into. There’s going to be some people who always want bottles, and there’s going to be some people who are always wanting to try whatever’s up and coming.

I’m on a can kick right now, without a doubt. It’s still only 12 percent of our bottle sales. So our bottles far outsell the cans, but the growth on the cans is higher than the growth on the bottles.

Soggy: A reader wanted me to ask you: Where does Ska get the cans you use? How much of the metal comes from recycled material?

Thibodeau: We get our cans from Ball Container in Golden. So we get them in Colorado, they’re made in Colorado. I think that’s another reason that cans are big in Colorado. I think there’s only a couple of options as far as can manufacturers go. Most of the people in other states getting them are probably getting them out of Colorado, too. So it’s nice because you’re not shipping them as far.

Honestly, I don’t know the answer to post-consumer recycled content of the aluminum. It is 100 percent recyclable.

Soggy: Craft beer right now is only about 5 percent of the total beer market. Do you see that increasing? Will there ever be a day where most people are drinking craft beer?

Thibodeau: I think so. That percentage has grown in the last couple of years. I want to say we were at 1.5 percent. Kim Jordan from New Belgium had the keynote speech at our craft brewers conference in New Orleans in maybe 2004, 2003, 2001. I don’t remember the exact year. But her entire keynote was about 10 percent market share for craft beer. Our growth has been steeper each year since that. It was prophetic, I think, in a way. At that time, it almost to a lot of people in the room seemed laughable. If I had said that, it definitely would have been laughable. But because she said it, everyone took it seriously.

There are definitely some pioneers that are having a lot larger growth and making it happen, but overall, that number is growing and that curve is getting steeper every year. There is growth in beer sales overall, and you’re seeing the growth in craft beer now coming close to equaling the growth in the three (large beer conglomerates) and imports in volume, which is absolutely crazy.

As an overall share of the market, it’s still only 5 percent, but I think (growth) is getting really steep now and I think that’s going to continue for a number of years. The type of people that are in the industry, I just don’t see how that growth could slow anytime soon. It’s too exciting and the beers are too good.

Soggy: That was the thing for me when I really started drinking craft beer in college. It just tastes better.

Thibodeau: Yeah, it does. And you’ve got to hand it to people like Sam (Calaglione) at Dogfish Head. They’re the totally amiable, humble dude out there who’s just kicking ass. And getting these beers out I front of people who’ve never (drank them) – you know, it was funny, even today I had someone tell me that she didn’t like beer. And I was like, well, you just haven’t tried the beer you like yet. Unless you’re just a teetotaler, if you like drinking anything there’s a beer someplace that you’re going to like. And even if you don’t, there’s a beer that you’re going to like the taste of even if you don’t like alcohol.

The variety is growing too. We’re a also a distributor for a number of other products, a number of other craft beers, so I’m fortunate to be tasting a lot of new beers all the time. Almost every day I taste something I’ve never tasted before and I love it. We’ll still drink our American lagers from the big guys. I’m not going to pretend we don’t. Playing hockey or something, we’ll go out to the parking lot and drink PBR or whatever, Coors. I like to go for Coors because it’s from Colorado. But if I’m like at dinner or a barbecue, if I’m not playing sports or hot and sweaty and just need something to pound, if it couldn’t be replaced with a glass of water or something, it’s craft beer. It’s just so much better.

Update: Westword, the Denver weekly, did its own little write-up of Ska's cans. It covers much of the same ground as this post, but one thing worth knowing:

The Ska brain trust has talked about switching everything to cans at some point. "The market is leaning that way," (Thibodeau) says. "It's hard not to think about one day being all cans."

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