Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beer cans and BPA

Cans are an explosive source of growth in the craft beer industry. Beginning with Oskar Blues in Lyons, Colorado, breweries including Durango's Ska Brewing Co. and Steamworks Brewing Co. have turned to cans as it became clear than consumers in many cases prefer them to bottles.

Now many brewers, particularly in Colorado, are canning craft beers, and canned craft has become ubiquitous at retail.

Cans have certain advantages: They are lighter and thus cheaper to ship. They are easy to recycle and tend to be recycled at higher rates than bottles. They are more portable and conducive to outdoor activities. And they are impermeable, so beer-spoiling light and oxygen can't enter the package.

Craft breweries have responded to consumer demand with a rush toward cans. Ska's top-selling beer, Modus Hoperandi IPA, is sold primarily in cans. Durango's largest brewery just last year repackaged its summer seasonal, Mexican Logger, and greatly increased the lager's production and distribution.

Steamworks has also adopted cans. So has Colorado's largest craft brewer, New Belgium, the third-largest craft brewery by production in the U.S. Oskar Blues, the canned craft beer pioneer, is packaging "tall boy" 16-ounce cans. That's just the highlights; an exhaustive list of craft breweries using cans would be, well, exhausting.

Cans have been particularly popular in Colorado. This is partly because one of the nation's largest manufacturers of cans, Ball Corp., is located in Golden, not far from Coors.

The only disadvantage regarding cans that has been widely circulated is the obvious fact that aluminum for cans must be mined, and mining comes with a long list of environmental risks and drawbacks. Personally, I feel that I generally get a smoother pour from bottles than cans when I decant into a glass, but that's a minor quibble.

To arrive at my point: No one is talking about BPA in beer cans.

BPA, technically known as bisphenol-A, is a chemical used in the epoxy linings for beer cans and many other products, likely including the Ball Corp. cans used by most canning craft breweries in Colorado.

BPA has been an increasingly decried consumer bogeyman. It's an endocrine disrupter, and as USA Today put it, "It's been linked with diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease in humans and has been shown to interfere with reproductive development in animals."

Many consumer products have been redesigned recently to be BPA-free, most famously those Nalgene water bottles. Nalgene was forced to make BPA-free bottles to stem a consumer backlash.

A recent study regarding BPA in soup cans caught a lot of attention. The peer-reviewed study released in November found that people who ate canned soup every day had a more than 1,200 percent increase in BPA in their urine samples. The study is already prompting boxed soups to advertise their BPA-free status.

My question: If eating soup from a can every day increases your BPA level by 1,200 percent, what about drinking beer from a can every day? What about when you get a six-pack of, say, Modus Hoperandi and drink it within a few days? What if you're tailgating and drink several canned Coors?

The headlong rush to can craft beer seems to be ignoring this issue entirely. While some publicity has brought changes to products like water bottles and soup containers, no such backlash has occurred among some of the very same people who regularly drink canned craft beer.

I sent an email to a Ball Corp. spokesman seeking comment. To the company's credit, spokesman Stephen McCarty responded almost immediately. It's a long response, but I've included most of it because it's good information:

"Almost all aluminum and steel beverage and food cans use epoxy-based coatings inside cans as a barrier between the metal and the products in the can," McCarty said. "Ball buys these coatings from suppliers."
He added:
• Cans are coated with epoxy resin to prevent corrosion, extend shelf life, protect the food contents from the metal packaging and protect the metal packaging from the food contents.
• Metal packaging with internal coatings reduces the potential for serious illness by enabling high temperature sterilization.
• This sterilization virtually eliminates the dangers of food poisoning from microbial contaminants.
• Epoxy-based coatings have been used in cans for decades to protect the product inside the can through various packing processes and to increase its shelf life afterward.

Epoxy-based coatings may contain trace amounts of BPA. Scientific evidence evaluated by regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand has consistently shown these coatings to be safe, and regulatory agencies have stated that human exposure to BPA from epoxy-based can coatings is well below safe exposure limits set by government bodies worldwide.


• The U.S. Food & Drug Administration is expected to comment again on BPA later this year. The FDA last commented on BPA on Jan. 15, 2010, when it concluded, "FDA is not recommending that families change the use of infant formula or foods, as the benefit of a stable source of good nutrition outweighs the potential risk from BPA exposure." ...

"While these regulatory agency statements seem to affirm the safety of epoxy-based can coatings, public discussion continues regarding bisphenol-A. Ball recognizes that significant interest exists in non epoxy-based coatings, and we have been proactively working with coatings suppliers and our customers to evaluate alternatives to current coatings," McCarty said.


• Currently there is not a viable alternative to epoxy-based coatings that meets the existing requirements of all products packaged in cans.
 • Early results from ongoing test packs that began in mid-2008 using potential alternative coatings have been mixed.
 • There are limited alternatives for certain, nonaggressive products. Those alternatives pose performance, shelf life, environmental or supply availability challenges.
 • Coatings companies are working on alternatives to epoxy coatings. Once they are identified, it will then be a question of how long it will take the new coating(s) to obtain regulatory approval and to be produced in sufficient amounts by suppliers to meet the needs of the market.
 • In limited cases, Ball is converting some foods to cans that use an FDA-approved non epoxy-based coating, typically involving less acidic products.

• Ball continues to participate in industry trade associations on BPA-related issues, and we will work with the FDA to update the agency on our progress and avoid any unintended consequences from possible alternatives to epoxy-based coatings.

McCarty added: "We are committed to responding to our customers' needs. If interest continues in non epoxy-based coatings, we will offer cans with those coatings when the coatings become commercially available."

Essentially, Ball acknowledges that it does indeed use epoxy linings that may contain BPA in its cans, and says there is no good alternative at the moment.

For craft brewers, it may pay to keep their options open. New Belgium downplayed the risks in a 2008 online response to a customer's question: "We became aware of BPA in epoxy resin can liners during our due diligence prior to deciding on packaging in cans. We looked into the matter thoroughly. What became apparent is that there are no cans whose lining does not contain BPA. The industry is actively looking for alternatives, but as yet, none exist. We still believe the benefits of cans outweigh the potential risk of the liners because the anxiety surrounding BPA seems to have far outstripped the science."

Dave Thibodeau, Ska's president and co-founder, leads a brewery that has rode a wave of mushrooming sales of craft cans. "There are very trace amounts of BPA in the liner of the can," he said in an email. "The levels are far less than that of steel cans and also way below what the FDA says is safe."

"As of now there is no aluminum can made without any BPA. The liner is there to protect the consumer from the aluminum."

Thibodeau added that Ska will be interested in BPA-free cans whenever they become available from Ball. "I know their mad scientists are working on an alternative and as soon as there is one we'll be all over it," he said.

Kris Oyler, a co-founder and general head honcho at Steamworks, said BPA seems to have little effect in adults — the main concern is the chemicals' effects on developing fetuses and children.

"From the research we have seen, it would take a lot of canned beer to have any overall adverse affects to an individual beer consumer," he said in an email message.

Oyler added, "We are not concerned that the general populous knows about BPA-lined beverage cans. To the contrary, more education is better. Beer drinkers can make their own educated decisions about what they want to put into their bodies and furthermore can make those changes. Studies have shown a reduction in BPA levels with the consumption of fresh foods — something we should all do more of. Balancing out a couple of canned beers with a fresh salad from a local farmer can go a long way."

"Our local consumers also have a choice to come in to our establishment for beer from the tap. Or they can purchase a glass half gallon growler for their beer. They can drink some of their beer from other brewers bottles. There are many choices and I think the key is balance and moderation in all things. Eating canned soup every day is not really healthy or balanced."

Oyler said Steamworks "would certainly be interested" in a BPA-free can. "We believe the can is a solid container for beer and the benefits ... are still worth pursuing."

For my take, cans certainly have their advantages, and craft beer drinkers love their convenience and portability. Hopefully, the market will soon demand that Ball and its competitors come up with a way to manufacture effective BPA-free cans.

As the Nalgene backlash illustrated, consumer preferences can turn on a dime, especially where their health is concerned. For their sake and mine, I hope brewers continue to offer their products in glass packaging as well as cans.

I'm not ready to give up on cans altogether. But until brewers can adopt a BPA-free can, I'll be buying my beer in glass bottles and growlers whenever I can, and limiting my use of cans to the golf course and backpacking trail — where bottles are clearly impractical — and for the occasional great beer that's only offered in cans.

It may not be time to get rid of those bottling lines just yet.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Holy Crap, it's Snowdown!

'Round these parts, it was Christmas yesterday. Then I woke up to find that it is already February and time for more celebration and revelry in the streets of Durango for the annual Snowdown Winter Carnival! As in years past, there are several local beer releases for the event. 

Carver's has a "Fairy Tale Pale Ale" on tap. It's a nicely hopped American Pale not unlike the mainline Jack Rabbit Pale Ale.  Though not related to Snowdown, they also had an Imperial Stout on tap that was thoroughly quaffable for being a relatively big beer. In fact, two of these and a burger totally changed my outlook on the day last Wednesday.

Steamwork's will be tapping a "Black Fairy Firkin" on Friday prior to the parade on Main Street. We are told that this is based on their award wining Backside Stout that has be re-fermented in the firkin with maple syrup and anise. This is a continuation of their first Friday firkin releases of experimental brews that have been fun to sample this winter.
Ska Brewing Co. has been tweaking a spiced Brown Ale recipe for a few months now, and the effort pays off in this year's Snowdown special release. Faeries Wear Boots is a spiced Brown Ale that would fit well in a Winter Ale/ Winter Warmer category (for those of you that heed such things). Brewed with all of the holiday spices, this one packs a punch of bold flavorings on top of a mid-bodied Brown Ale base backed with plenty of warmth from all of the delicious alcohol it contains. The brew available on tap, and in 22oz bombers at your favorite local package store. I believe this is part of their "local series" set of releases, so distribution outside of Durango may be limited.
I enjoyed last year's Black IPA, but I have to say that I really dig this year's brew. I was a fan of the Brown Ale release at Christmas as well, which seems to have been an earlier version of this beer.

Ska will also be hosting a "Punk Rock Breakfast Party" at the Lost Dog Saloon on Sunday morning. For those of you still needing to kick some ass on Sunday morning, or for those of you looking to get a start on the celebrations for the "Big Game" later in the day, this might be the place to go. Beer specials and punk music to get your day started.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ska Brewing's year in review

Ska Brewing Co. looks back at its 2011 with this release:

Ska Brewing has had an incredible year, full of important milestones and proud accomplishments — at least according to notes taken by the brewery’s management team throughout the year. “I’m glad we wrote this stuff down. It all seems so hazy now,” admitted Ska President and co-founder Dave Thibodeau. “I know we grew, but without our notes I’d be looking to beer bloggers to find out how much and when.”

For example, one treasure trove of documentation — titled “press releases” — indicated that at the beginning of 2011 Ska Brewing was named Durango’s Business of the Year by the Durango Chamber of Commerce. That means for the past year Ska has been Defending Business of the Year. The title is notoriously impossible to defend, but Ska can claim many other highlights in 2011.

By the end of 2011, Ska had produced 21,257 barrels (bbls) of beer. (A U.S. bbl is 31 gallons.) According to notes found on a recently unearthed thumb drive, Ska announced near the end of 2010 that the company had reached regional craft brewer status, (as defined by the Brewer’s Association), by producing more than 15,000 bbls of beer. Math experts say these numbers show an increase of 28 percent over the previous year, or approximately 28 percent more than the S&P 500 stock index returned in 2011.

“Growth in production has allowed us to meet demand in our markets,” says Ska co-founder Bill Graham. “That’s a fancy way of saying we’ve been keeping people around the country supplied with fresh beer — and they’ve been buying it up pretty fast.”

According to pictures discovered on Ska’s Facebook page, last spring saw the addition of four new 240-bbl tanks, including three fermenters and one brite tank. This expansion increased Ska’s brewing capacity by 70 percent, and opened the door for the increase in production.

The milestones haven’t all been operational, either. Last spring Ska ventured into filmmaking when it produced Brew Minions—a video parody of the Discovery Channel series Brew Masters—with appearances by Ska’s co-founders and employees, and by Dogfish Head Brewing Founder and Brew Masters star Sam Calagione. The not-so-short film poked fun at the Dogfish Head-focused television series, while silently acknowledging that every brewery wishes it had its own TV show.

Thibodeau says the film was a success, even though it didn’t fit any traditional mold: “It ended up being over 20 minutes, which was about three times as long as we planned. But people watched it anyway, and they loved it. It’s had 13,000 online views so far.”

Other Ska Brewing milestones in 2011:

• Ska cans Mexican Logger for the first time, releasing the seasonal lager in all of its markets.
• Ska celebrates American Craft Beer Week with the release of Big Shikes Orange Blossom Imperial Pilsner, a beer collaboratively brewed with Westword beer blogger and homebrewer Jonathan Shikes. (In 2010 Ska initiated the first beer blogger brewing collaboration when it invited two local beer bloggers to brew on its pilot system and write about the experience.)
• Seth Townsend’s Organic Dubbel wins Ska’s GABF Homebrew Competition and goes on to be entered in the GABF Pro-Am. The beer is also released by the brewery as Sethvleteren 8, no. 19 in Ska’s Local Series.
• Ska again participates in the Tour of BoulDurango it helped found, sending four riders to join four other breweries on a 470-mile tour of Colorado’s biggest passes and best brewpubs to raise money for local charities.
• Ska loses the L.A. International Beer Competition, but wins many others, including:
• Steel Toe Stout: Gold Medal, Great American Beer Festival
• Modus Hoperandi IPA: Silver Medals—Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival and Australian International Beer Awards; Bronze Medal—AmeriCan Festival; Winner, Best Canned IPA— Poll
• Pinstripe Red Ale: Gold Medal—North American Beer Awards; Bronze Medal—Colo. State Fair Nat’l Commercial Microbrew Comp.
• Ska Special ESB: Bronze Medal—Australian International Beer Awards; Silver Medal—Colo. State Fair National Commercial Microbrew Comp., Silver Medal—AmeriCan Festival
• Buster Nut Brown Ale: Silver Medal—Denver International Beer Fest
• True Blonde Ale: Silver Medal—Colo. State Fair National Commercial Microbrew Comp.
• True Blonde Dubbel: Bronze Medal—Colo. State Fair National Commercial Microbrew Comp.
• Mexican Logger: Winner, Most Sessionable Craft Can— Poll
• Euphoria Pale Ale: Voted Durango’s Best Local Beer by Buzztown

• Ska celebrates its 16th Anniversary with a blowout party featuring The Toasters from New York City along with two other bands, more than 20 guest breweries and over 1,000 people in attendance
Ska attracts 11,150+ Facebook followers, 5,800+ Twitter followers, and one creepy stalker.

“13- or 14,000:1 is a pretty good fan to stalker ratio,” said Thibodeau. “But with all the new breweries starting up, we’re hoping that person will find another ‘favorite’ and lose interest in us."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Homebrewing update

The 19th Hole Red Ale I brewed with a friend was a modest success. We used the Brewer's Best red ale kit, and followed the directions closely since it was the first time homebrewing for both of us.

It ended up with a nice flavor. If I were designing the recipe from scratch, I might like a little more robustness. But it turned out as a nice session ale, so I can't complain. I would have liked a little more carbonation as well. We used the priming sugar included in the Brewer's Best kit. It lent some carbonation, but not as much as you would expect in a typical commercial beer.

As first attempts go, we were pretty satisfied with the result. The 5-gallon batch yielded 48 12-ounce bottles. The Brewer's Best kits are more or less idiot-proof.

Next, we're going to try our hand at brewing a stout using Charlie Papazian's recipe for Cushlomachree Stout from his Joy of Homebrewing book.

We're also planning to add a pound of flaked oatmeal for a little more body and creaminess. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Firkin Friday @ Steamworks tomorrow!

Steamworks continues their "First Friday Firkin" tomorrow by tapping a Belgian Framboise style ale at 5pm. I plan on dropping by around 5:30 for a taste and perhaps a pint or two of their other offerings (I think the barleywine may still be available). And if you haven't in a wile, be sure to check out their newly redesigned website!

Below is the official word:

First 2012 Firkin Friday at Steamworks Brewing Co. on Jan. 6
A Belgian Framboise style ale is planned for the January firkin
DURANGO, Colo. – The monthly Firkin Fridays continues at Steamworks Brewing Co. on Friday, Jan. 6, 2012, as the Steam Team introduces a Belgian Framboise style ale. The firkin will be tapped at 3 p.m.
“A traditional Framboise or Frambozenbier is a spontaneously fermented raspberry Lambic ale specific to the region near Brussels,” said Ken Martin, Steamworks head brewer. “Our rendition can’t be quite like that because the authentic version involves open air, wild fermentation. The Lambic can trace its roots back more than 400 years. They say to drink a Lambic style beer is to take a trip back through time.
Instead of brewing a Lambic, Steamworks’ Framboise Firkin will use a rich Belgian style brown ale as the base, re-fermented and naturally carbonated, or conditioned, in  its cask with raspberries. The yeast transforms the sugar into alcohol within the cask, and carbonation results from the trapped carbon dioxide occurring as a byproduct.
“The Belgian Framboise firkin promises to be a balance of rich chocolate and fruit, cut with tartness. Think chocolate raspberry truffles,” explained brewer Spencer Roper. “The beer will have roughly a 7.5 percent ABV, so it should be a nice warm up for these cold winter nights.”
A firkin is an old English unit of volume, typically a wooden cask equal to approximately one-quarter of a regular barrel, or nine gallons. Unlike most draft beers, firkin beer is served at about 55 degrees - cool but not cold, and is unpasteurized, unfiltered. Because it contains no preservatives, a firkin beer is designed to be consumed after tapping.
Steamworks initiated its Firkin Fridays to introduce additional and unusual specialty craft beers to its regular offerings.
The award-winning Steamworks Brewing Co., open 11 a.m. to closing seven days a week, is located at 801 E. Second. Ave., Durango (970.259.9200). For further information, visit