At CanSource's Longmont headquarters, there is a wall, and on that wall are hundreds of empty cans: short, tall, fat, thin; every color and font represented, and every state in the union, too.
They are displays, and each one represents hundreds of other cans that were filled, shipped and drunk by consumers of craft wine, cocktails, soda and cider. But mostly beer.
Today, canned beer is the fastest growing segment of the even faster-growing craft industry. Though bottles still dominate, the volume of cans has grown from 13 percent of all craft beer by volume in 2013 to 25 percent today, according to Broomfield-based Ball Corporation, the world's largest maker of aluminium cans.
The container's rise has its roots in Boulder County. Fifteen years ago this November, Oskar Blues poured the first Dale's Pale Ale into the cylindrical vessel. Their efforts, and those of a handful of other area companies, created and cultivated the craft can revolution, now going beyond beer to encompass cocktails, wine, spirits and soda.
It wasn't always that way. CanSource Co-founder and President Pat Hartman remembers the early days well.
"When Dale (Katechis, Oskar Blues' founder) started toying around with the idea of putting good beer in a can, people said, 'You're crazy. No one wants to drink that. You're going to go out of business.'
"Obviously," Hartman said, "he didn't go out of business."
A helping hand from Canada
Since starting as a restaurant and brewpub in Lyons in 1997, Oskar Blues has become the 10th largest craft brewer in the U.S. Not including the other holdings in its portfolio, the brand will put out some 50 million cans of beer in 2017.
But iconic brews like Dale's Pale and Old Chub might never have made their way across the U.S. if it wasn't for a Canadian company, Cask Brewing Systems. Cask sent a fax to the Oskar Blues offices touting its custom machine that could fill two beer cans simultaneously and seal one at a time.
"I shared it with my brewer," Katechis recalled, "and we laughed hysterically and threw it in the corner."
But after the first fax came a second. Then another. They kept coming, to be followed by phone calls from Cask sales rep Kersten Kloss. Finally, they couldn't be ignored. Katechis and his brewer traveled to Calgary, Alberta, to see the machines in action.
Things didn't go well. Sales rep Jamie Gordon was driving the men around. His car ran out of gas on the way to their hotel; he had to hop a nearby fence and ask a man mowing his lawn for fuel. Then the car stalled out later when he went to pick them up for dinner.
"I remember thinking, 'I don't know why this guy bothered to buy from us,'" said Cask founder Peter Love. "It was a disaster of a night."
But Katechis was undeterred. A subsequent trip to Ball's manufacturing facility in Golden sealed the deal. He ordered the $15,000 piece of equipment from Cask and then $10,000 worth of cans from Ball, an entire truckload, with nowhere to store them and no idea how long it would take to sell through nearly 200,000 cans.
(It would take an entire year to use them all. These days, Oskar Blues can fill a truckload in approximately 10 hours.)
"We didn't have any way to get them off the truck," Katechis said. "We had to pull the truck up into the alley and have four guys each grab a corner of a pallet and walk it into this 100-year-old barn.
"I remember the truck driver looking like he'd never seen anything like it."
Getting Ball to play ball
The truck driver wasn't the only one. Katechis and his crew encountered skepticism and criticism wherever they went. Although some smaller breweries in Wisconsin and Canada had put their beer in cans in the '90s, according to Tom Acitelli of All About Beer Magazine, cans were still largely associated with the mega brewers and their ubiquitous pilsners and lagers.
"We were at a craft brewers conference in Cleveland," Cask's Love recounted. "Some guy came by and said, 'That's the dumbest idea I ever heard. What good craft brewer would want to put craft beer in cans? Everyone knows it's better in bottles.'"
For Cask and Oskar Blues, every sell was also a seminar. Consumers had to be educated on the benefits of cans: lighter weight, and therefore less expensive to ship; infinitely recyclable; easier to deal with during outdoor activities, because they wouldn't break and could be crushed down once empty to save space; better able to block out light, keeping beer fresher longer; and, a battle still being waged today, no metallic taste, due to the liner that has accompanied aluminium cans since at least 1970.
Joining Love and Katechis in their educational efforts was Ball. The can maker visited craft brewers in those early days, pitching them on the power of the can. Few were convinced.
Internally, too, negotiations were needed to convince the higher-ups that the fledgling craft industry was worth wooing. Its orders paled in comparison to Ball's biggest players, companies like Coke and Pepsi that needed tens of millions of cans at a time.
Love remembers a conference call with his Ball sales rep, Brock Langley, and others within the company. When Langley described Cask's revolutionary system, capable of filling two cans at a time, there was laughter from the other call participants.
"It was a business decision to commit to these growing categories," said Melanie Edwards Virreira, director of marketing for Ball. "We invested the time, the resources, the marketing, recognizing that we were creating complexity in our operations."
Today, Ball's Golden plant churns out 6 million cans a day. The company won't disclose how many of those are destined for craft breweries, nor how much of its revenue comes from craft accounts. In a recent earnings call, craft beer was called out specifically as a major driver of volume growth in North America.
None of that would have been possible without Oskar Blues' Katechis, Virreira said.
"He helped convince and educate the other craft brewers. It took someone like Dale to say, 'I'm going to try this.'
"Once we had the beer snobs on board, it just started to go."
Quick home growth
Other businesses deserve some of the credit for the rise of the container. Once brewers cottoned on to the can, they needed a way to fill them effectively and efficiently.
Founded in 2008, Boulder's Upslope Brewing had an early system that could handle 6 cans a minute. Their neighbors, engineers of everything from heating and cooling devices to automation equipment for laboratories, thought they could do better.
Wild Goose's founders thought they could create a 20-can-per-minute machine. Their first build, delivered to Upslope, churned out 24 every 60 seconds.
The response from other craft brewers was "instant," co-founder Alexis Foreman said. Attendees at that year's Great American Beer Festival marveled at the technology on display at Upslope, then came knocking.
The waitlist was nearly a year long. Now, 500-some units and 45 additional employees later, Wild Goose has outgrown three Boulder spaces. It will move next year to the Colorado Tech Center in Louisville, spreading out to 37,000 square feet and adding 10-15 people to its team.
Its canning lines can put out 45 cans per minute, and be delivered to breweries within six to eight weeks of order, though there is still a 50-deep wait list. The company also has 75 roving units throughout the world, being trucked from one brewery to the next for on-site canning.
"That's the testament to the process and the system," Foreman said.
One of Wild Goose's early customers formed its own company with the $100,000 canning line. CanSource started as Mobile Canning in 2011, following Wild Goose's model of bringing the canning capabilities to the brewers.
That branch of the business is still going, with more than a dozen affiliates across the country. But the bulk of the operations happen right in Longmont, inside a warehouse space by Front Range Community College, where labels from hundreds of brewers get placed on millions of cans a year.
"We're having fun," co-founder and president Hartman said.
CanSource can do batches as small as half a pallet. This year, they will pump out 40 million cans, up from 25 million in 2016. Most will make their way to small and medium-size brewers, but some are special projects for bigger operations like New Belgium and Oskar Blues, including limited releases and specialty packaging.
A similar operation in Pennsylvania serves the East Coast, and the founders are mulling two additional U.S. locations.
That activity has made them one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. Inc. magazine placed it at No. 348 in the U.S. leading other Boulder County businesses appearing on the list with 1,249 percent revenue growth in the past three years.
Oskar Blues in a bottle?
All these businesses got their start with beer, but other alcoholic beverages are quickly creeping into cans. Wine is a big growth market, both Ball and Wild Goose said. CanSource has canned sodas, ciders, cocktails and cold brew coffee as well as wine.
CanSource established a distillery at their Miller Drive operations, and is working with brands to mix and can their concoctions. Two separate entities, Vertical Distilling and Vertical Wineries, were established under the CanSource umbrella to handle spirits and wine, respectively.
"Anything craft," Hartman said, "it's going into a can."
Even Oskar Blues is getting into the cocktail game, with a canned Moscow Mule in the works, using the spent grain from the beer-making process.
Ball created the Crowler, a 32 oz. can to replace glass growlers. Oskar Blues then became the exclusive seller of a Crowler sealer, a tabletop seaming machine made by Wisconsin Aluminium Foundry.
The classic case is getting a revamp, too, Ball's Virreira said, with craft brewers opting for 15-packs of low-alcohol beers.
Of all the vessels Oskar Blues has tried, the one thing its beer has never been in is glass. Will Dale's Pale Ale or any other brew ever come in a bottle?
"I've learned to never say never," Katechis said, "but it really goes against our core competency as a company. Aluminium cans are our lifeblood."