If you're going to quaff a cold beer this Fourth of July weekend, why not make it a local brew?
Tucson's Barrio Brewing Co. recently began canning its beer, becoming the first Southern Arizona brewery to can its product and only the second to package it for retail sales.
Six-packs of Barrio's Tucson Blonde American-style blonde ale are now available at more than a dozen local outlets, including stores like Plaza Liquors & Fine Wines and Gus's Liquor and some big chains like Sprouts Farmers Market and Total Wine & More.
Barrio owner Dennis Arnold said he decided to can, rather than bottle, his first packaged retail offering because cans are more economical and more recyclable.
"We thought a lot about bottles, but glass is just problematic," said Arnold, citing the weight of glass bottles, breakage and the fact that aluminum cans are recycled in greater volume than glass.
And instead of the clear-plastic rings that commonly keep cans in a six-pack - which can entangle and harm birds and other wildlife - Arnold opted for a plastic, clip-on six-pack holder that is fully recyclable without the hazardous loops.
Arnold said he looked into canning about five years ago but worried about the perception that cans are for lower-end products. But with the increasing acceptance of screw-top caps for better wines, the low-brow perception of cans is fading fast, he said.
"That ridge of perception was crossed and people said, 'this is a great wine,' " Arnold said. "Cans have really come on, so all the breweries are opening canning lines."
Indeed, several other Arizona brewers, including Four Peaks Brewery and SanTan Brewing in the Phoenix area, both bottle and can their beers. And Barrio isn't the first local microbrewery to package its beer for retail shelves; Tucson-based Nimbus Brewing Co. has been bottling its beer for more than a decade.
A learning curve
While Barrio's canned Blonde has quietly appeared on some local store shelves, Arnold said he's waited to promote the cans until he feels he has the canning process perfected. He has sunk about $160,000 into the new canning line, part of a recent brewery expansion that tripled the brewery's production capacity.
"We are just trying to make sure we can do this - it's kind of intimidating," he said, noting canning temperatures, carbonation and dissolved oxygen levels are just a few of the critical factors involved.
At one point Arnold and his crew - which now includes a chemist - found contamination in the canned beer that was later traced to a crack in a refrigerated tank, prompting the company to halt production and throw out hundreds of cases of beer.
"From the beginning, we wanted to go slow," Arnold said.
Even without a big marketing push, Barrio's canned Blonde is selling.
Sarah Sydloski, beer, wine and spirit expert at Plaza Liquors, 2642 N. Campbell Ave., said the store quickly sold out its first two cases of canned Tucson Blonde.
Some customers are specifically looking to buy local brews, and the Barrio cans are a good addition to Plaza's Arizona beer section, Sydloski said. "People definitely come in and ask, 'Where is your local beer section?' " she said.
Arnold said the Tucson Blonde six-packs are selling for about $9 each, about the same as other craft-beer sixes.
Barrio's distributor, Tucson-based Golden Eagle Distributing, has seen double-digit growth in sales of craft beer in cans in the last year and expects that trend to continue.
Cans aren't a turnoff
"Consumers have embraced craft beer in cans and they have been a great addition to the craft category," Golden Eagle's Richard "Rusty" Wortman said in an email.
"Its popularity has grown because consumers can now enjoy their favorite craft beers anywhere that you typically do not want or could not take glass, like the park, on the river, by the pool, playing golf and tailgates, plus the package is recyclable," Wortman said.
Looking ahead, Arnold said he'll look to can other Barrio varieties, and his new canning line has the capability to fill 16-ounce cans.
He's also eager to try a new type of can, known as a "large opening end" can, which features a pop-top that peels off to leave an open cup - allowing drinkers to smell the brew as they imbibe.
"With a bottle or regular can, your nose isn't involved, so you don't get the hops and the whole experience," he said.
ABOUT THE LOGO
The artwork for the new Tucson Blonde can, which depicts a blonde wearing a sombrero, cutoff jean shorts and cowboy boots, was designed by Doug Finical, a local businessman and graphic designer who has designed Barrio Brewing T-shirts in the past.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at 573-4181 or at email@example.com