Monday | 13 August, 2012 | 12:52 pm

Bottoms up

By Nick Wright

A Seattle start-up brewery brings back the flat-top steel can

August 2012 - Recall what you know about beer, pop or other beverage cans. They are aluminum, open with the pull of a pop-tab and are easily crushable and recyclable. That’s been the case for about the last 50 years. Before that, steel was the prevailing material, and people used church key openers (or any tough, sharp implement) to open the can. Now, a West Coast start-up craft brewery has revived the flat-top steel can as a nod to nostalgia.

Churchkey Can Co., Seattle, co-founded by Justin Hawkins and actor Adrian Grenier, arose from the desire to tip back the way previous generations did. Creating the most authentic experience possible was key, so they made sure the can was steel, Hawkins says. The idea generated responses from two groups of people.

“Those who had opened a flat-top beer can before and were excited for its return, and those who had never opened a beer this way—typically those under the age of 50,” he says.

To get the right can design for its Churchkey Pilsner, currently its only brew, Churchkey tapped Ball Corp., Broomfield, Colo. In 2009, it became the largest beverage can supplier in the world, according to the company.

Besides the material, steel cans are assembled differently than their aluminum cousins. In the United States, nearly all beverage cans are made from two-piece drawn and ironed aluminum, says John Saalwachter, marketing manager. The Churchkey cans are essentially three-piece welded food cans, which Ball has manufactured for about two decades.

“Every time we package a new product, such as beer, we take great care to test compatibility,” he adds.

Steel cans were introduced in 1935 and were a beer industry standard until the advent of the pull-tab in the mid-1960s. After Ball prints the graphics and applies a coating, the cans are cut to size from sheets at one of its plants located in Weirton, W.Va. At another plant in Oakdale, Calif., the flat sheets of metal are curled into cylinders and the side seam gets welded.

One end is double-seamed onto the can, which means one cylinder end gets flared open to cradle the end. The cylinder’s flange is curled back over the end for a seal. Churchkey receives open-top cans, with loose ends accompanying them.  Three-piece steel cans have thicker walls than aluminum cans, Saalwachter says.

After Churchkey fills the can, it double-seams the second end onto the can. The basics of canning steel and aluminum cans are the same, Hawkins says. However, because aluminum is softer, Churchkey needed a canning machine with more brawn to withstand higher forces.

“This included making the seaming chuck and rollers more durable as well as increasing the overall strength of the entire seamer,” he says.

Vintage vision
Churchkey’s six-packs include the namesake opener, which gets its name from big, old-fashioned keys used to unlock a church. The cans simply require punching two triangular holes on top for airflow and a smooth pour. Hawkins says the extra puncturing effort makes it more satisfying for the next step: tasting it.

Drinking directly from the flat-top can produces a unique sensation, “unlike anything felt when drinking beer from a bottle or aluminum can,” he notes.

One allure of both aluminum and steel cans is their recyclability. Ball uses 100 percent recyclable steel for these cans. According to the company, steel cans have the highest recycling rate of any food package at 66 percent, while aluminum cans have the highest recycling of any beverage packaging at 58.7 percent.

“We’ve also seen huge support from can collectors,” says Hawkins. “Churchkey gives them the chance to finally, or again, have that experience of shipping from a flat-top can.” MM

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