Not long ago the only beers you could buy in cans were dirt-cheap, water-thin, mass-produced macrobrews. Good craft beer came in bottles, period. Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis changed all that in 2002, when he packaged the first commercial batch of Dale’s Pale Ale in aluminum cans that went wherever his outdoor adventures took him. Today, at least 400 craft breweries are canning more than 1,400 beers. And why not? Cans are lightweight and rugged. They also keep your suds fresh by blocking beer-damaging UV rays, and cool off quicker in a lake, river or mountain stream. Plus, they’re beach-friendly (no broken glass to worry about) and all of the wild new designs mimic soda cans, so they attract less attention from police at concerts or in the park, where drinking is socially acceptable even if it is, strictly speaking, illegal. These are the 10 canned beers we’ll be cracking most this summer.
Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
Best Canned IPA: Just as Ballast Point grew from a local homebrew shop into the “Best Small Brewery in the World” (so named at the 2010 World Beer Cup), this hop-heavy West Coast-style IPA grew out of a lowly homebrewer’s recipe—a hybrid of two, actually—into one of the best examples of the style produced anywhere. An absurdly well-balanced beer, its light body allows fruity hop flavors—apricot, mango, peach and pineapple—to shine through without the dry bitterness that overwhelms casual drinkers.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: La Cumbre Elevated Ale
Surly Coffee Bender
Best Canned Brown Ale: While most coffee beer is of the porter or stout variety, Minnesota’s Surly decided to cold-steep this smooth oatmeal brown ale with single-origin Guatemalan coffee beans. The result is a complex brew that smells like your morning joe and unfolds in waves of flavor: first coffee, then notes of cocoa and vanilla, finishing with a fresh hoppy snap (at 45 IBUs, it’s twice as bitter as most browns). It’s as light-bodied and refreshing as iced coffee, and good enough that you might just start sipping it with breakfast. (Might want to keep that to the weekends.)
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: Cigar City Maduro Brown
Founders All Day IPA
Best Canned Session IPA: This is the beer that launched the current craze for session IPAs, a style of easy-drinking beer that cuts back on alcohol (they’re generally lower than 5 percent ABV) while still packing big-beer hop character. First brewed in 2013, All Day accounted for an astounding 27 percent of Michigan-based Founders’ annual sales volume, prompting the likes of Stone, Firestone Walker and Sierra Nevada to roll out their own versions this year. True to the style, this refreshing beer packs a ton of traditional IPA flavor — peppery, piney hops barely kept in check by a thin malt backbone — into a refreshing 4.7 percent ABV package that you can drink (you guessed it) all day.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: Carton Boat Beer
Modern Times Fortunate Islands
Best Canned Wheat Ale: Brand-new in 2013, Modern Times brought together an all-star team of brewing veterans in San Diego under a single utopian vision: to brew delicious, approachable, session-ish hybrid beers in a socially responsible way. Fortunate Islands is founder Jacob McKean’s favorite beer and offers solid evidence that he’s on the right track. A perfect mash-up of an easy-drinking, summery wheat beer and a bright, hoppy IPA, it bursts with tropical hop notes, even as wheat malts provide a medium-bodied, mildly nutty backbone. Like what you taste? Modern Times recipes are open source and free for beersmiths to reproduce at home.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: Half Acre Akari Shogun
Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout
Best Canned Stout: This oatmeal stout is named for a Northern Californian redwood forest near the venerable brewery with a canopy “so thick it can seem like nighttime at high noon.” While its impossibly opaque, black hole color can be intimidating, this is a well-rounded brew that’s suitable for beer geeks and casual drinkers alike. Sweet toffee and espresso emerge from the creamy malt milieu, which is reigned in by just enough hop bitterness to keep you refreshed and craving more.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: Modern Times Black House
Half Acre Daisy Cutter Pale Ale
Best Canned American Pale Ale: Since 2006, Chicago’s Half Acre Beer Company has focused on brewing raw and basic beers that are “rich in material and undisturbed by process”, and no beer sums that up as succinctly as its Daisy Cutter Pale. Here, the brewer has packed tons of dynamic flavor into a clean, light-bodied beer with relatively low alcohol content. The strong orange, grapefruit and floral aromas of American hops hit the nose like a far more aggressive IPA, but the palate tells a different story. Toasty malts hit the tongue, accompanied by a pleasingly bold hop bite that lingers long after you swallow. In the end, Daisy Cutter is an elusive, astonishingly complex beer that most certainly rates among the classics of American craft brewing.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: Westbrook One Claw Rye Pale Ale
Maui Brewing Coconut Porter
Best Canned Porter: When it opened in 2005, Maui Brewing Co. took a valuable lesson from wine — the importance of terroir — and applied it to craft beer, “handcrafting ales and lagers brewed with aloha” and locally sourced ingredients that are hard or impossible to grow on the U.S. mainland, including Macadamia nuts, sweet Maui onions, lemongrass and pineapple. This porter is brewed with 200 pounds of house-toasted flaked coconuts per 25-barrel batch, which helps mellow out the dark chocolate and deep roasted coffee flavors that are typical of the style. The result is a surprisingly easy-drinking porter that will carry you though a long, hot summer barbecue.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: Tallgrass Brewing Zombie Monkie
The Alchemist Heady Topper
Best Canned Imperial IPA: If you’re one of those scientific types who requires hard evidence that canned beer has come into its own, look no further than a cold aluminum tallboy of Heady Topper. Rated the number one beer in the world by BeerAdvocate, this coveted beer is only sold locally in Vermont, where it consistently sells out within days — and sometimes hours — of being released. A delicious, hazy double IPA, it’s orange in color and blasted with a proprietary blend of six hop varieties that deliver wave after wave of citrus, tropical fruit, pine, floral and fresh grass notes and leave behind a not-unpleasant dense hop resin coating. This beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized (e.g. perishable), so brewmaster John Kimmich recommends you drink it cold from the can, and don’t let it age, a problem we don’t anticipate.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: DC Brau On the Wings of Armageddon
Cigar City Tocobaga Red Ale
Best Canned Red Ale: As beer styles go, reds (or amber ales) tend to reach for a middle ground. Body, malt flavor, hops and bitterness all aim roughly for the midpoint of the spectrum, far from the polarizing IPAs and stouts. Because of that, reds are too often middling, bland beers that appeal primarily to timid beer drinkers. Tocobaga, brewed by Tampa’s Cigar City and distributed exclusively in Florida, is a notable exception. Packed with six varieties of hop, it tickles the tongue up front with citrus bitterness that quickly gives way to a smooth caramel complexity, rendering the 7.2 percent alcohol nearly unnoticeable.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: Hopworks Rise-Up Red
Oskar Blues Old Chub
Best Canned Strong Ale: There are plenty of strong ale varieties out there — Belgians, Barleywines, Old Ales and Scotch Ales, among them — each with its own character, but they all have in common a powerful dose of belly-warming alcohol. Old Chub was one of Oskar Blues’s first-ever canned beers and, a dozen years later, it’s still one of the best strongs to come in a can. Brewed with seven different malts, including plenty of caramel and chocolate, this is a rich, complex, sweet beer with a hint of smoky peat flavor. Oskar Blues calls it the beer equivalent of a single malt scotch or your favorite dark chocolate, suggesting a rare treat that should be enjoyed in moderation. And, at 8 percent ABV, we agree.
If You Can’t Find It, Drink: 21st Amendment Monk’s Blood