Walk into the new Root Wild tasting room on Washington Avenue, and you can buy a flight of kombucha in a rainbow of colors and flavors. There’s a soft pink strawberry, made with fruit from Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth. The one with the purplish hue contains elderberries foraged by Reid Emmerich, co-owner of the kombuchery, in Freeport and the South Portland-Scarborough area. Another glass is filled with golden-colored ginger kombucha spiced with lemon and cayenne.

The beautiful color of kombucha is one of its selling points, and one reason why it is usually sold in glass bottles. But last week Emmerich was brewing 900 gallons of kombucha destined not for glass but aluminum cans. In three weeks, a mobile canning unit from New York will pull into the new kombucha brewery at 135 Washington Ave. and process three flavors into cans. Root Wild is just the second commercial kombuchery in the state, according to the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages, and Emmerich believes his company is the first in New England to can kombucha, a trend that has taken off nationally in just the past year or so. A spokesperson for Kombucha Brewers International in California said the organization doesn’t know of any other kombucha companies in New England that are canning.

A flight of kombucha at Root Wild in Portland. The trend toward canning kombucha has taken off nationally in the past year or so. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Consumers are used to buying sodas and mass-produced beers in cans, but in recent years traditionally pricier craft beverages have started to show up on store shelves in cans as well. Cold-brew coffee showed up first, followed by ready-made coffee drinks. Now wine and cocktails have joined the canned beverage bandwagon. In Portland, the Blue Lobster Wine Co. at 219 Anderson St. started selling wine in cans last year – a chardonnay, a rosé and a red blend called Bayside Blend, priced at $5.99 for a 375 ml can, or half a bottle – and released its first canned sweet wine, a Moscato, a couple of weeks ago. Next will be a pinot noir and a blueberry-infused wine.

Maine Craft Distilling, located down the street from Root Wild at 123 Washington Ave., started canning cocktails in April. And canning has worked out so well for small craft brewers that even Allagash Brewing Co. has dipped its toe in the water, announcing in April that it would begin packaging its Hoppy Table Beer in cans. While there are no statistics for how many Maine craft breweries are canning their product, “I think it’s safe to say that of those who package beer, the majority are canning,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers Guild.

Crass or cool?

Beverage companies that are transitioning from glass bottles to cans say consumers often raise their eyebrows at the idea of drinking a high-end beverage from a can because they’re worried the can will confer a tinny taste to the product – no longer a problem now that cans come with improved liners. Or they look down their noses at cans the same way they do screw-top wine bottles or wine-in-a-box.

“Occasionally we see people who are skeptical, but once they try the wines they seem to get on board,” said Chris Gamble, owner of Blue Lobster. “And certainly, the younger crowd gets it immediately. They seem to think it’s smart and practical – not so hung up on traditional packaging.”

Tom Madden and John Paul, co-founders of Lone Pine Brewing Co., are partners in Root Wild and already package all their craft beer in cans. They’ve brewed two beers for Root Wild, a Mate Session IPA and a Double IPA, and they are working on a toasted porter with chaga mushrooms and oak. Their long-term goal is to blur the lines between their products and experiment with beer-kombucha blends – another trend.

The can, Madden said, “is a miniature keg. It blocks all light. It almost eliminates any oxygen from entering that vessel, whereas with a bottle that crown will lose oxygen over time, and that product will change.”

Root Wild co-owner Reid Emmerich brews a batch of kombucha. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Emmerich says the benefits of cans go even further for kombucha. His kombuchas are slightly sweeter than other brands, and they taste very flavor forward, meaning the fruits and other flavorings are not overwhelmed by the acidity of the brew. You can really taste the strawberry in the strawberry kombucha, for example, and the blueberry and lemon in the blueberry flavor. Cans help preserve those flavors, and keep the live brew from evolving further, Emmerich said.

“In my experience with kombucha,” he said, “if you can refrigerate it and pump it with CO2, and stop it from continuing to ferment, you can really capture the freshness of it and the additional flavors, like the berries. If it continues to ferment, let’s say in a bottle, you lose a lot of those nuances.”

The environmental benefits of cans versus bottles is debatable, but Emmerich and his partners come down squarely on the side of cans.

“Cans are undoubtedly a more sustainable packaging vehicle,” Emmerich said. “They cost less to make. They cost less to ship. They’re more easily recyclable.” Canning is also faster than bottling. Madden said Lone Pine initially hand-bottled its product at a rate of 10 cases per hour. A canning line can produce 40 cans per minute, he said. “All the beer styles we do right now lend themselves to cans,” Madden said. “They’re made to be consumed soon. Fresher is better, and cans promote that idea.”

But cans have a couple of drawbacks, at least when it comes to kombucha. Once a can is opened, it can’t be re-sealed, which is why the Root Wild group decided to go with smaller cans – 12 ounces rather than the 16 ounce-cans a lot of other kombucha companies use. They’ll charge $3.50 per can, or $12 per four pack.

The other downside is that loss of visual impact. While some consumers are probably just fine with not seeing bits of the slimy bacterial culture that is such a crucial component of kombucha floating in the drink, others are attracted by the colors of flavored kombuchas. Root Wild is trying to make up for the loss by using colorful labels that indicate what’s inside the can – a blue label for blueberry kombucha, and so on.

Can do’s

Cocktail enthusiasts are also discovering the benefits of drinking from a can. Kara Newman, spirits editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, wrote last year that canned cocktails are “a trend just beginning its ascent.” In this country, anyway.

“They’ve been making canned cocktails forever overseas,” she said in an interview, noting that Londoners have long been able to buy canned gin and tonics. “It’s not 100 percent new. It’s just that it’s new to us.”

The number of canned cocktails marketed by U.S. companies, especially craft distilleries, has grown substantially over the past few years, according to Newman. The margarita-flavored malt beverage trend has probably helped pave the way, she said. You can now buy a “beerita” in a can, “so why not a margarita?” Newman said.

Part of the attraction of cans, she said, is that they’re lighter than glass, and more portable.

“People love to just pick up a six-pack and take it home,” Newman said. “You can take it camping, take it to the beach.”

A flight of kombucha at Root Wild in Portland. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Luke Davidson of Maine Craft Distilling says it was seeing the success that the craft beer industry had with cans – and the fact that it didn’t hurt craft beer’s image of quality – that convinced him to try it.

“We’re early adopters for sure,” he said. “It’s definitely a wave that’s coming. A lot of spirits manufacturers are coming out with one or two” canned cocktails.

Davidson jumped on the trend by canning two cocktails in April – Maine Mule, made with rum and ginger, and Blueshine Lemonade, made with the distillery’s own blueberry moonshine and lemonade. In August, the company released Cranberry Island Cocktail, a canned vodka-cranberry juice drink. All of the canned cocktails contain 7 percent alcohol by volume, which means they can be sold in grocery and convenience stores, not only traditional liquor stores. The drinks sell for $13.99 per four-pack.

Davidson estimates that his company has doubled its reach since it started selling the canned cocktails, drawing in new customers who are interested in convenience and portability.

The demographics of his canned cocktail customers, he said, are “across the board.” “It seems that there’s a lot of room for it,” he said. “I’ve heard rumors that the very large industry players are interested in this space.”

Gamble says he was first attracted to the idea of canned wine for environmental reasons. He also liked the fact that cans are versatile and travel well, quenching thirst on sunny beach days as well as apres ski. They’re light proof, and each can is dosed with nitrogen “so there’s no oxygen to mess with the wines.”

“Also, the size of a can – half a bottle – is great if you don’t want to open a whole bottle,” Gamble said. “It’s essentially two good-sized glasses of wine.”

Wine in cans is “definitely trending right now,” Gamble said, but he doubts they will ever replace bottled wine altogether.

“A nice bottle of wine is something I still enjoy,” he said.

 

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