On Monday morning, Allagash White, one of American craft beer’s most iconic brands, its marigold yellow and navy blue packaging a familiar sight to brew aficionados and neophytes alike, began showing up on bottle shop shelves around Washington, DC in an unfamiliar form: cans.
Even in 2019, 17 years after Oskar Blues pushed the first domino on the craft sector’s slow but steady embrace of aluminum receptacles, containers once stigmatized as cheap and inferior to glass bottles, the arrival of Allagash tallboys still feels like an event. Yes, nowadays the majority of new breweries can their beer, and it’s hard to think of another major independent brewery that doesn’t do so with a significant portion of its offerings, but none of those breweries make Allagash White, an elegant, pillowy, approachable-but-complex Belgian-style wheat beer that’s lost none of its luster since being introduced in 1995.
Previously packaged solely in four-packs of 12oz bottles (as opposed to the standard six-pack), Allagash White has always felt in some ways like a luxury item – bottle conditioned, presented in smaller quantity, available at a higher price point than competing witbiers like Avery’s White Rascal and Port City’s Optimal Wit. It wasn’t unrealistic to think the Portland, Maine brewery would resist the market’s ever intensifying call for cans.
But if you’re selling “clean” beer (which is to say, not fermented with wild yeasts or bacteria), the question has now become: Is selling some portion of your portfolio in cans a must?
“I don’t like definitive words like ‘must,’ but it’s pretty close to one,” says Jason Perkins, Allagash’s Brewmaster and a veteran of the company for over two decades. “If you’re selling beer out of your facility, that’s a whole different ballgame, but if you’re selling into multiple markets, then yeah – it’s what consumers, it’s what wholesalers want. There are certainly cases of both on-premise and off-premise accounts that have completely eliminated bottles from their shelves. Then it doesn’t even become a conversation of hey, can you bring my beer in? So, it’s pretty darn close to a must if you’re a brewery selling beer in a larger footprint.”
Nevertheless, Perkins says the decision to can was the product of lengthy consideration – like pretty much everything at Allagash, he jokes. The brewery’s first dalliance with canning occurred over four years ago, when Allagash hired a local mobile canning company to package Allagash White and the Belgian pale ale Sixteen Counties. But in a twist that’s so on-brand it’s almost comical, the company – which is known across as the industry for its generous treatment and retention of employees – never intended to distribute those cans. The 100 cases of unlabeled beer were merely for staff to take home at the outset of summer.
“It honestly started as a company perk,” Perkins says with a chuckle. “Living in Maine and having lots of options to be on the water – whether it’s on the ocean or lakes or rivers – our employees like cans. That was our first, not-even-intentional experiment into cans. It was kind of fun thing for us to do on the side. We weren’t in serious discussion about whether we would actually sell cans – we felt pretty busy just keeping up with what we were already doing.”
As time went on, though, Perkins says it became more and more apparent that putting Allagash beer in cans was something that the general public – not just the company’s “adventure-loving employees” – were excited about. So, the brewery bought a canning line, not dissimilar in size from the mobile canner it had previously contracted, and began experimenting.
The challenge was making sure the liquid in cans was identical to its bottles. Of course, that’s something any brewery faces when changing packaging, but Allagash faced the additional wrinkle of replicating the effects of bottle conditioning.
Bottle conditioning is a process in which a bottle receives a small addition of sugar and yeast prior to capping, and is then stored at a warm enough temperature to encourage refermentation, which produces a softer carbonation (than entirely “force carbonating” with CO2) and enhances the beer’s flavor and aroma. Allagash bottle conditions essentially all of its cleans beers – something that typically adds five days of production time and extra storage considerations.
“We bottle condition, therefore we assumed we’d can condition,” says Perkins. “We just really like the qualities that come out of processing those beers that way. There were some challenges, but we basically found out that the challenges are the same for cans as they are for bottles: It adds another process variable that you have to control really carefully to make sure that you’re not over- or under-carbonating. Luckily, we have nearly 25 years of experience with that.”
After several rounds of trialing the can-conditioned beers and subsequent sensory analysis, the brewmaster was satisfied with the processes Allagash had developed. (As explained in a blog post, empty cans are flushed with CO2 prior to filling since aluminum is too delicate to be vacuumed for oxygen like a glass.)
“I can say with confidence that our beer in the can is precisely the same as the beer in the bottle,” says Perkins, speaking to me from Denver International Airport, en route to visiting his brother in Crested Butte. “Obviously, the experience is different drinking it, but the liquid inside is the same.”
Even with this confidence, the rollout of Allagash cans has been measured. The first 16oz four-packs went on sale at the brewery in May 2018. Interestingly, the initial offering wasn’t Allagash White – those cans wouldn’t come for another 10 months. Instead, it was Hoppy Table Beer, a self-descriptive, sessionable staff favorite. Later in the year came cans of beer both new (Tiny House, Florette) and old (Starling Wit, Haunted House). Some of these “specialty beers” – as they’re called within Allagash – were sold outside the brewery in Maine, but none left the state.
Allagash White cans arrived in February of this year, when the company began sending cans across seven states (New England, plus New Jersey and parts of New York). Accompanying Allagash White on this expedition was River Trip, a Belgian-style session ale that carries the torch of the since-discontinued Hoppy Table Beer, albeit in a slightly less bitter form and with a modified grain bill – plus, sharpened branding. to boot.
These are the two year-round offerings that showed up in DC, as well as Chicago, earlier this week. While Allagash has plans to open up the remaining ten states in its distribution footprint to cans in early 2020, it decided to target the two separate markets ahead of that larger rollout. Part of the logic for singling out the cities relates to byzantine state laws and the relative paucity of off-premise chains in each market, but a lot boils down to appetite.
“They’re high-volume markets – or so we hope, anyway,” explains Perkins. “These were markets that were really screaming for cans. Frankly, every market was. Once we started selling cans in some markets, we were getting daily hassle calls from the wholesalers saying, ‘When’s it going to be our turn?’ DC and Chicago just rose to top as being the best fit for the next wave. We’ll get everyone else come early next year.”
Driving this expansion will be a new canning line commissioned by the brewery just a few weeks ago. Manufactured in Germany, assembled in Wisconsin, the KHS line cans beer ten times faster than the equipment Allagash had been operating for the past few years.
“It’s a pretty astronomical upgrade from what we were running before,” says Perkins. “These guys know what they’re doing. It’s super high quality in terms of consistency and very little ingress of oxygen – it’s pretty stellar.”
In addition to the filler, Allagash had to purchase a bevy of peripheral equipment, including a depalletizer, a cartoner, and case packers. To fit all of this machinery, it also had to erect a building adjacent to their property at 50 Industrial Way. All in all, the upgrade cost Allagash… well, Perkins declines to say.
“Suffice to say, it was a big investment for us,” he deadpans.
The entrance of Allagash White cans into DC (and soon enough Virginia and Maryland) has intriguing implications for the friendly rivalry between Allagash and Alexandria’s Port City. The DMV is perhaps the only market in Allagash’s distribution footprint where it competes for placements with a formidable local craft witbier. That beer, Porty City’s Optimal Wit, has not only similarly collected gold at the Great American Beer Festival, it’s also priced cheaper – a factor of consideration for consumers and commercial beer buyers alike. But while Port City has contracted mobile canning runs for limited purposes (like selling into sports stadium and distributing to Canada), the Virginia brewery doubled down on 12oz longnecks with a state-of-the-art, $2 million bottling line in the fall of 2017. Two years later, Allagash finds itself more limber to account and consumer preferences, which are increasingly partial to cans. To some degree, this well enable the Maine brewery to eat into Optimal Wit’s hefty market share – the question is how much.
Beyond Allagash White and its canned flagship counterpart River Trip, falling within Allagash’s dual distribution footprint opens up DC and Chicago to limited releases otherwise only available in the Northeast for the time being, like Tiny House and Haunted House, the latter of which arrived alongside Allagash White and River Trip. That said, Allagash has no plans to significantly cut back on bottles as part of its sizable repertoire, particularly as it relates to wild, sour, and boozier beers.
“We are absolutely still going to be putting beers in bottles,” says Perkins. “Now, we just have more options. We love to crack jokes about a 16oz can of Curieux, but it’s not something that we’re going to do. That type of beer is really a nice fit for 12oz bottles. We’ll honestly assess it on a beer-by-beer basis.”
A new beer that won’t be making it into bottles or cans is called The Cloister. A blend of Allagash White, spontaneously fermented ale, and a mixed-culture saison, the beer was created in collaboration with ChurchKey for the tenth anniversary of the Logan Circle beer bar
The idea to concoct the blend originated from Greg Engert, the influential beer director for ChurchKey and the rest of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s growing empire of DMV, New York City, and Richmond properties.
“I reached out to Allagash, and I said, ‘For ChurchKey’s tenth anniversary, we’re trying to come up with really cool events with our favorite brewers – brewers who have been friends and longtime supporters of us, and in turn for whom we’ve been longtime supporters,” he says. “There are few brewers who can compare to my relationship with Allagash. So, I just posed the question – I was like, ‘Hey, would you be up for blending something for the occasion?’”
Engert carries many fond memories about – and eventually with – Allagash. There are the countless Allagash Whites he drank at the Reef in 2002, a time when the old Adams Morgan bar was oddly one of the biggest U.S. accounts for the beer. There’s the deeper exposure to the brewery’s catalogue he gained working at the Brickskeller in the mid-2000s. There’s the friendship he formed with Allagash founder Rob Tod. There are multiple run-ins with Tod and Perkins over in Belgium. And there are too many events and festivals to keep track of.
Somewhere in there, around the time he was tapped as beer director for Rustico in 2006 and then the whole restaurant group in 2008, Engert became a significant patron of Allagash beer – something that continued unceasingly as the group opened ChurchKey in 2009 and then just never stopped expanding.
“Since ChurchKey opened, they’ve been an awesome partner for us,” says Perkins. “We’ve always been a standby there, and at several other of their places. We don’t do a lot of projects like these, and when we do, it’s with someone who has been an important part of our growth for many years. So, it was absolutely something we were interested in doing with Greg.”
Unsurprisingly, Engert – whose wealth of historical brewing knowledge is matched only by his enthusiasm to share it – already had a few concepts in mind. For starters, he knew he wanted to include spontaneously fermented beer in the blend.
For the uninitiated, the hot wort for such beers are left to cool in a wide, shallow, open fermentation vessel (called a coolship) overnight, during which time it’s inoculated with microflora occurring naturally in the air. The liquid is then transferred and allowed to age for an extended period of time, often in oak barrels, where it develops a uniquely funky, intense character. Belgian Lambic producers employed this method of production throughout the 1800s, but Allagash, which installed a coolship in 2007, is often credited with leading the resurgence of spontaneously fermented beer stateside over the past decade.
“Pretty early on, I suggested blending coolship beer with clean beer,” the beer director recalls. “I had thought, ‘If we’re blending beer with Allagash, what does Allagash do well?’ Well, they do a lot of things well. Allagash has been making wonderful spontaneous beer longer than anyone else in the U.S. Then I kept thinking about how amazing Allagash White is. It’s one of the very few beers that has been on at ChurchKey for ten years straight. So, it was like, ‘What if we could match the two beers? What if we create a beer that’s not just for the uber-geeks? What if we blended something that’s innovative and new but also can be drank with regularity, something that’s low ABV and very crushable?’”
According to Engert, inspiration for the beer was also drawn from My Life – a collection of interviews with Pierre Celis, a former milkman who opened Brewery Celis in the mid-1960s and essentially revived witbier as a style with a beer named after his hometown: Hoegaarden. The beer director points out that Celis’ original witbiers were of mixed-fermentation. Therefore, unlike Allagash White and the many clean witbiers it inspired, the beer would have had an acidic streak. In fact, Celis had initially hired a brewer from old Lambic producer to hone that acidity.
That same character was likely commonplace in the Belgian white ales that existed the century before the Hoegaarden witbier revival.
“There’s some literature on old school white beers, before they were even called white beer,” explains Perkins. “Like most beers 150 years ago, they were cooled in a coolship. They weren’t necessarily spontaneously fermented, but they were cooled in a coolship. Often, they were intentionally made to be acidic, whether through a sour mash or mixed-fermentation, or sometimes they just were because that’s the way it was. We don’t know exactly what they tasted like, but the idea was to create something inspired by the thought of what it could have tasted like.”
This summer, Engert and Perkins entered the Allagash wild barrel cellar with that thought in mind.
During the three-hour blending session that ensued, the two tried numerous blends of various beers. They settled on a blend composed of 65% Allagash White – an amount that would ensure that the beer had the brightness and fullness of a fresh witbier. For the coolship component, which accounts for 25% of the final product, they selected an older barrel with complex earthy funk and rich wood notes, yet not a particularly acidic character. So, to capture the vibrant tartness Engert envisioned, they added roughly 10% of an Allagash beer called Saison Gratis.
“Saison Gratis is kind of a wild saison – open fermented and then foeder fermented, so it ultimately picks up some natural micro flora,” explains Perkins. “It’s a dry yet slightly acidic saison. Greg felt like acidity was important, so we used it to get an extra pop of acidity.”
Blended three or four weeks ago – and then immediately put in cold storage to prevent the wild yeast and microbes from consuming the unfermented sugars in the Allagash White – the Cloister allows both the clean and wild components of the beer to shine in concert with the other. In that sense, it represents a fusion more dynamic than anything Allagash and ChurchKey could have created had they set about brewing a historically accurate late-1800s or 1960s witbier from scratch.
“What we get here is a beer that drinks clean and fresh with dialed-back elements of a Lambic – a touch of tartness, a touch of earthy funk, a touch of that toasted sesame seed oak character, a hint of grapefruit and green apple skin,” observes Engert. “There’s no way other than blending that we could get at all of those flavors. It’s the best of both worlds.”
The name, proposed by Perkins, is a nod to De Kluis – Flemish for “The Cloister.” It’s the name that Pierre Celis chose to rechristen his brewery with in 1978.
“We settled on the Cloister as a homage not just to classic witbier, but to all of classic brewing, which would have seen spontaneous brewers and mixed-ferm brewers and witbier brewers existing as simply brewers together,” says Engert. “We think of beer in the Belgian tradition as being organized and classified, but imagine a world in the 1950s and 1960s where everyone would have just been considered brewers, and they would all have a shared knowledge.”
The Cloister debuts at ChurchKey on October 17 – the fourth installment of its anniversary series. Both Perkins and Tod will be in town for the unveiling.
“It’s a really fun beer – I’m excited to drink some at that event,” shares Perkins. “Obviously, I’ve had some at the brewery – it’s really nice, very drinkable, a little bit of subtle funk to it.”
There’s no word on whether Allagash cans will be on the menu that night, but the brewery is surely prepared to sell Engert a pack or two.
All photos courtesy of Allagash Brewing.