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Put down the bottle, pick up a can

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Rick Tufts knows what to do with award-winning beer: Put it in a can, drink it and throw it at the band. At least, that's what Tufts, a co-owner and brewer at Triangle Brewing Company, has been doing lately. Tufts, who started the Durham-based brewery in 2007 with Andy Miller, began packing brews in cans last month.

The beer cans hit stores in Durham and Orange counties in late summer, and Triangle Brewing held an official can-release party on its loading dock in mid-September. That's where I watched Tufts pluck an empty beer can from a blue recycling bin and pitch it toward the stage, where the band Pipe was playing. The band had encouraged the crowd to cover them in cans.

It may sound harsh, but it was a beautiful moment as Tufts lofted his can with the energy and wide-toothed grin of a kid who has gotten exactly what he wanted—not far from the truth.

Tufts became interested in brewing while earning a graduate degree in psychology at Yale University. As a student there, he regularly visited the New Haven Brewing Company and soon started making his own beers on his home stovetop. What began as a hobby, he explains, started to take over his life. He moved to Durham and pursued a career as a psychologist in the Durham County schools, but soon after he began to annoy his wife with talk of beer and brewing.

"She eventually told me either to try to do it or shut up about it," Tufts explains. So he went for it, traveling to the American Brewers Guild in Middlebury, Vt., to learn the trade, then moving on to a stint at Flying Fish Brewing Company in Cherry Hill, N.J. A year later, he united with Miller, his best friend from childhood, and the Durham brewery was under way.

"It was very exciting. Pop the Cap had just happened here," he explains, referring to the bill that raised the legal cap for alcohol levels in beers sold in North Carolina. It was a law that boded well for Triangle Brewing, which made a Belgian golden ale—with 8 percent alcohol by volume—its flagship beer. Tufts developed a taste for Belgian ales, he explains, while working in Cherry Hill and decided to stick with such brews.

Until recently, the Triangle beers had been primarily available in 22-ounce bottles at a handful of local stores and as an option on restaurant and bar taps. But those options proved limiting for the brewery as the owners looked to expand. Tufts and Miller, originally the only two employees at Triangle, filled about 1,000 bottles by hand each day, a level of production that even with their recent addition, Luke Studer, whom they refer to as "Employee Number One," they couldn't keep up. As for the taps, Tufts explains, "There are only so many available."

So Tufts and Miller searched for the best equipment they could afford—a canner—which turned out to be a steal. Contrary to popular perception, packaging beer in cans has advantages over bottles. Cans have caught on in the West, where most beer trends start, and for a couple of years beer lovers on this side of the continent have been enjoying canned beers like Old Chub Scotch Ale and Dale's Pale Ale from Colorado-based Oskar Blues Brewery.

Tufts says aluminum protects beer from light damage, which can give it a skunky flavor. Bottle caps aren't as airtight as cans, and air infiltration can result in a beer that tastes much like cardboard. There's also the issue of mobility, says Tufts. Cans can travel to parks and other places that don't allow glass.

One more thing to add to Tufts' list: When hurled at a band, empty beer cans cause less damage than bottles.

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