Back in high school, I’d obsessively flip through my local record store’s racks for the freshest indie-rock darling, something to jingle-jangle my teenager ears just right. Fast-forward a few decades, and my obsession is now beer shops’ fridges, rustling through their cool, illuminated recesses for the fresh new thing.
That’s how, on a recent winter afternoon at Brooklyn’s Covenhoven, my gaze locked on a few foreigners clad in uncommon garb. Germany’s subtly smoky Schlenkerla Helles and Birrificio Italiano’s generously hopped Tipopils were canned, cold imports wearing American beer’s trendiest armor.
I palmed the cans, seeking the packaging information with an archaeologist’s fervor. Perhaps this was another case of contract brewing, Evil Twin or Omnipollo hiring breweries to pump out Stateside product. Schlenkerla’s label explained that the beer was brewed in Bamberg, Germany, and canned in Connecticut, while Tipopils’s label proclaimed the beer was brewed in Italy and canned fresh in Oxford, Connecticut. That city is the headquarters of their shared importer, B. United International.
Brewed overseas. Packaged stateside. Distributed on the double. These were aluminum unicorns, a dream made real by B. United. “The beers are brewed where they’re supposed to be brewed but have the freshness of a locally brewed beer,” says B. United packaging manager Ben Neidhart.
Craft beer enthusiasts pray at the altars of freshness, rarity, and locality. Cans, not bottles, are increasingly popular, preferably from an IPA maker right down the road, producing barely enough cases to fill a hatchback’s trunk. This places European brewers and importers in a pinch. How do you pique the interest of fickle, freshness-mad American beer enthusiasts who may only stumble into the import aisle by accident?
B. United is a family business. Ben’s dad, Matthias, founded the company in 1994 with a focus on bringing the most distinctive international beer brands to America. The importer’s portfolio counts icons including Harviestoun, Hitachino Nest, J.W. Lees, De Dolle, and more.
For B. United, it’s crucial and essential to “present our beers and brands at the highest level of freshness, in terms of flavor and aroma complexity,” Matthias says.
Over the years, B. United has perfected its initiative, keeping cases beneath the water line during trans-Atlantic voyages and, upon arrival stateside, storing beer in its temperature-controlled Connecticut warehouse that sits 14 to 16 feet underground, the geothermal temperature a steady 53 degrees. Moreover, customers can order, say, a single case—which means they’re never sitting on mountains of stock growing older by the minute.
The freshness mission reaches its apex with the temperature-regulated tank containers to bring in draft beer. The metal vessels, which keep liquid right around freezing, contain four separate compartments that B. United fills with beers from multiple breweries. The vessels are shipped to Connecticut, where the beers are transferred to sanitized kegs or cans and sent to market, a practice that continues today.
Ben often puts the beers through a second or third fermentation prior to kegging. He works closely with foreign brewers on the fermentations, backed by a database filled with information on how yeast strains react to different sugar levels. The payoff for the painstaking process is draft beer as fresh as the day it set sail across an ocean. It was a necessary step to fix a fizzy problem.
“Before we did the tank containers, we brought the beers in kegs,” Matthias says. “We realized that many of these kegs over time became so highly carbonated that they became un-pourable because of too much foam. Refermentation was going on inside the kegs.”
In effect, B. United is operating as a quality control arm for the foreign breweries. “Many of our breweries are tiny and can’t afford to invest a lot of resources into quality control, which is extremely important when you talk about complex refermentations,” Matthias says.
Additionally, Ben operates the side brand Ordinem Ecentrici Coctores (OEC), which translates roughly from Latin to “Order of the Eccentric Boilers.” It investigates the far fringes of fermentation, barrel-aging beers with grapes grown on B. United’s property, maturing barreled beers in underground pits, marrying sake and sour-beer production, even spontaneously fermenting some.
OEC also collaborates with international breweries, though not in the traditional sense. For example, Hanssens Artisanal will provide two-year-old Lambic, then OEC will blend it with its Chardonnay barrel–aged Berliner Weisse. No two releases are identical, and Ben gets the final say on flavor.
“Let’s say you have an idea and you talk about it. You also need to have a lead chef. If you have too many chefs in the kitchen, it ends up being a mess,” he explains. Sometimes there’s a ton of input, other times not so much. The sole constant is brewers’ faith in Ben. “You always have to trust someone to finish the final thing.”
Like a voracious invasive species, cans are quickly consuming the bottled landscape, accounting for nearly 30% of packaged production in the U.S. The fact is not lost on Ben and Matthias.
OEC bought a small canning line used to package beers like Baudelot Blanche, its take on a pre–World War I Witbier. Their thinking was: wouldn’t it be great to sell cans of classic imports too? It could change the way that consumers purchase volumes of B. United products. “If you go to an import shelf, everything ends up being single bottles,” Ben says. “With Schlenkerla Helles, you should really pick up a four-pack.”
International brewers initially scoffed at the idea. “In Italy, and even in my mind, the idea that a can is bad beer is still a very strong idea,” says Birrificio Italiano founder Agostino Arioli. As was once the case in America, cans have a déclassé reputation because they’re primarily used for mass-market lager. “I’m not used to thinking about cans as the best way to deliver freshness.”
Tipopils is an intensely aromatic Pilsner. As with any highly dry-hopped beer, aroma will be the first component to fade. To ensure his Pilsner socks American drinkers in the sniffer, he sends vacuum-sealed Hallertau hops alongside Tipopils. Ben does the final dry-hop stateside.
“I travel to the U.S. at least once a year and I’ve had the chance to try Tipopils many times,” Arioli says. “I know I can trust Benjamin. He’s doing a great job.”
Canning or even bottling Tipopils overseas would contradict both B. United’s and Birrificio Italiano’s commitment to freshness. For other breweries, additional hurdles soon became apparent. Can companies require orders of high minimum volumes, to say nothing of a canning line’s cost, which can start at nearly $30,000 for entry-level, dual-head filler from Wild Goose.
“Breweries told us they didn’t have the resources to invest in it,” Matthias says. “They said, ‘Obviously we can’t do anything about it.’ We said, ‘Not so fast. Let’s think about doing this in a different way and a most innovative way. We have a big part of the infrastructure in place. We have the tank containers, so we can bring in these special liquids that we think people would love to have in cans as well.’”
In fall 2017, B. United started canning Schlenkerla Helles and Tipopils in Connecticut. But instead of packaging the beer and selling it, B. United pre-sold it before cranking up the canning line.
“We only fill cans to fill the distribution pipeline. If 300 cases are ordered this time around, then [we] fill 300 cases,” Ben says, noting the rest of the beer is earmarked for draft. “We fill these cans, and some of them ship out the same day for distribution.”
All cans are shipped to wholesalers within 48 hours. That means no beer growing old and gathering dust in a dark warehouse.
“For Tipopils, there’s zero inventory and zero storage,” Matthias says. For us, it’s the ultimate freshness that we want to offer to our accounts. There’s no storage time lost anywhere in the chain.”
It didn’t take long for B. United’s cans to become a hit with customers.
“The fact that B. United had the wherewithal to can Tipopils, it’s just brilliant,” says Cory Bonfiglio, the managing partner at Brooklyn bar and bottle shop, Beer Street. Several years back, Stillwater Artisanal Ales’ Brian Strumke’s turned him onto Tipopils with a text. “He was like, ‘No shit, I just had the best Pilsner I’ve ever had, and I’m in Italy.’”
When draft Tipopils became available in America in 2010, Bonfiglio bought it the first chance he could and served it at the East Village’s Proletariat, where he formerly worked. (Birrificio Italiano’s Arioli was on hand and approved of the beer.) Grabbing cans for Beer Street, where he currently works, was a no-brainer.
“I think we took three cases, and we moved them in a week and a half,” he says. He likes being able to offer customers Tipopils cans at a lower price-per-ounce compared to draft, meaning more folks might give the beer a go. (Cans at Beer Street and $9 for 12 ounces, while Bonfiglio previously had to price draft Tipopils at $1 per ounce.) “This will be a way for more people to experience these products.”
Other beer stores are also chomping at the bit. “Our response time is under an hour when B. United sends out the email that they’re going to be doing stuff,” says Megan Saxelby, the general manager for New York City’s Beer Table. “We’re all super geeked out about them being in cans.”
She gravitates toward Schlenkerla Helles, making sure there’s always extra on hand for herself. “That’s because it’s one of my favorite beers,” she says. “I’ve ordered plenty of extra cases to make sure we have it in stock for a long time.”
Those accustomed to drinking bottled Schlenkerla Helles might notice a big difference in the canned version, which is unfiltered. (Bottles are filtered.) “It raises the level of flavor and aroma so much,” Ben says. “It’s totally awesome.”
Another upside is that B. United can place beers that were formerly draft-only, like Tipopils, in new accounts. “It gives us the opportunity to give Tipopils to on-premise Italian restaurants that desperately want to have it,” Matthias says. “Many Italian and Mediterranean restaurants don’t have a draft line, but they want these wonderful beers.”
Of course, not everyone is happy. Some traditional accounts turn their nose up at the notion of world-class beer served in a can, Matthias says. And while they are pumped to buy fresh beer, others are dismayed they’re unable to order cans whenever levels dip low—pre-selling stock means there’s never extra beer lounging around.
“Accounts can’t assume that we will have 500 cases in stock and they can order it whenever they want to,” Matthias says. “I tell them, ‘You’re absolutely right. We just might not have it.’”
Buoyed by strong response from its accounts, B. United will expand its canning push to include other beers such as Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted, a citrusy Blonde Ale; orange peel–packed Awà Pale Ale from Italy’s Almond ’22; and, this fall, Austria’s Oktoberfest-ready Hofstettner Original Hochzeitsbier von 1810.
The hope is that cans resonate with craft beer enthusiasts that favor their beers cold and canned fresh, analyzing date codes with an intensity bordering on obsession.
“When you do this preorder-to-go thing, you’re targeting a very dynamic segment of craft beer,” Ben says, adding that B. United cans share fridge space with the latest crazes, occupying more appealing real estate. “If you go in the one-off bottle section, sometimes that’s in a dingy corner. Sometimes people don’t even see it.”