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Russian River Brewing Company introduces its first beer in cans

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The last holdout among major craft brewers in Sonoma County, Russian River Brewing Co. has finally put one of its beers in cans with the limited release of Mind Circus hazy India pale ale.

The move was a big step for owners Natalie and Vinnie Cilurzo, who have been hesitant to can brews because they were concerned about the quality of beer in cans and their new Windsor brewery was not designed to handle a canning line.

“We designed this brewery around bottling. That’s what we know and what we do really well,” Natalie Cilurzo said. “Cans have been creeping up in the market share. ... We were kind of really hesitant.”

The Cilurzos were concerned about aluminum cans because they have as much as 10 times the oxygen in the container as bottles. That means cans have a shorter shelf life, since the beer oxidizes much quicker. The couple worked with a Sacramento mobile canner that was able to reduce the oxygen within the cans by refining the packaging process, including basting nitrogen into the cans right before overfilling them.

“We asked them to get it (oxygen) down to as good as the levels of the bottles,” Natalie Cilurzo said.

Russian River kept the effort secret until unveiling the cans on social media on Monday. The brewery made a batch of 2,100 four-pack cans of Mind Circus. The cans are priced at $22 for a four-pack and $5.50 for a single can, but only are available until they are gone at Russian River’s Windsor and Santa Rosa brewpubs. On the first day, 180 four-packs were sold. The hope is the limited can release will last through the Thanksgiving holiday season.

In the end, Russian River ended its can holdout because the brewer could not ignore the trend of younger consumers who prefer cans over glass bottles, which have been the mainstay for years for the craft beer industry.

However, canned beer has been catching up with bottled beer in the craft brew sector and sales of each are likely to be equal in 2019, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, the trade group that represents independent brewers. Overall, cans represent 56% of the beer marketplace, with bottles at 33% of sales and draft brews at 11%, Watson said.

Russian River’s canned beer follows a progression of other formidable area brewers that had been reluctant to go to cans, then relented. Most notably, Lagunitas Brewing Co. founder Tony McGee in 2012 proclaimed that his Petaluma brewery would be the last one in the region to sell canned beer. Four years later, Lagunitas released its 12th of Never ale in a can, and many other canned varieties have followed.

Locally, craft brewers such as HenHouse Brewing Co. and Cooperage Brewing Co. have gained increasing popularity for rotating beer releases of four-pack cans.

As for Russian River, its experiment with canned beer may continue next year if the Mind Circus cans get positive reviews, Cilurzo said. There’s even the possibility of canning the brewery’s flagship Pliny the Elder. But she ruled out canning the highly sought after Pliny the Younger, the triple IPA limited release every February that has become one of the most celebrated beers in the world.

“We are dipping our toes,” Cilurzo said of canned beer. “I wouldn’t take anything off the table.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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