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Churchkey Can Company: A New Brewery Combining History and Innovation

by Kendall Jones, Washington Beer Blog

If you are paying attention, you don’t need me to tell you that the craft beer landscape is changing. For the most part, the changes are for the better as craft beer becomes more and more popular. Slowly but surely, good beer is showing up in sports bars, taverns, restaurants and other previously uncharted territories. Grocery store beer aisles are dedicating more and more space to handcrafted beers. This is progress. This is what we wanted. This is good.

As the sea of craft beer rises, so do all of the boats floating upon it. Those boats are rising quickly. New breweries are opening all the time and just about every established brewery is searching for creative ways to realize expansion. Beyond spurring growth, this dynamic craft beer marketplace is spawning innovation. It’s the Wild West. It’s a brave new world. In the midst of this rapidly modernizing beer environment, one company is turning back the clocks: Churchkey Can Company is going retro.

Unless you are over 50 years old, you have probably never opened a can of beer with a churchkey. If you are under 40, maybe you’ve never even seen a churchkey. Flat top steel cans, invented in the mid 1930s, were the original beer cans. They did not have pull tabs or stay-tabs: you needed a device called a churchkey to get the beer. The Churchkey Can Company is packaging its beer in flat top steel cans. Old school.

Both New and Old

The Churchkey Can Company is the name of a new microbrewery located in Seattle’s Sodo neighbrohood. The focus is singular: Churchkey produces one type of beer and packages it in flat top steel cans. While the cans are decidedly retro, the business model is not. I hate using the word unique to describe anything, but it is a unique business arrangement.

Working with Two Beers Brewing Company, Churchkey Can Company entered into a very specific and particular kind of partnership. The new brewery is on the other side of the eastern wall at Two Beer Brewing. It is a separate space, a separate lease, and a separate business license. Figuratively and literally, Churchkey is very much connected to Two Beers Brewing. They are separate companies, owned by different people, sharing a common wall and a new kind of business relationship.

I recently visited the new brewery and noticed that they have a beautiful, modern canning line. They also have some beautiful stainless steel tanks for fermenting and conditioning the beer. I also noticed the conspicuous absence of a brewhouse in which to brew the beer. No brewhouse?

Churchkey Can Company’s canning line is far more sophisticated than the very manual system currently employed by Two Beers Brewing. Are you beginning to catch my drift? I’ll spell it out in simple terms. Two Beers Brewing Company brews the beer in its brewhouse, using Churchkey’s ingredients, and then transfers it to Churchkey Can Company (a licensed microbrewery) where it is fermented, conditioned and canned. It is Churchkey’s recipe. It is not a Two Beers Brewing product. Brewmaster Joel Vandenbrink and his insanely talented crew of brewers did not invent this one. They just brew it to Churchkey’s specifications and then transfer it next door.

In exchange, Two Beers Brewing gets to use Churchkey’s canning line. That is likely a gross simplification of the agreement, but that’s the crux of the deal. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

This is not contract brewing. It is not badge engineering (the process of putting a different name or badge on an existing product and calling it new or different). This really is different. It is new. What makes it especially fascinating, something so decidedly new involves something as retro as a flat top steel can.

I don’t doubt that there will be people who for one reason or another question the authenticity of this arrangement. Likely, some people will see it as less than true to the spirit of craft beer. Me, I think change and innovation are inevitable. As long as the beer is good, the rest of it doesn’t matter so much. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more that things change, the more they stay the same.

About the Beer

As far as the product is concerned, you can expect to see Churchkey Pilsner hit the market in the near future. The exact date has not been determined but it will be soon. The brewery describes the beer this way: “Churchkey Pilsner is a handcrafted pilsner style beer made from the highest quality ingredients. The body of the beer comes from the light, grainy pilsner malt taste, accented by a smooth clean bitterness. The Saaz hop taste and aroma featured in the Churchkey Pilsner makes for a uniquely complex, yet seasonable beer. Available in 12 ounce flat top steel cans and six packs. 29 IBU; 4.9 percent ABV.”

Having drunk the beer, I would describe it as being a Northwest-style Pilsner. Very reminiscent of traditional Czech beers, but perhaps a bit hoppier to appeal to our Northwestern palate. I like it very much. Drinking it from a flat top steelie is novel for sure, but the beer inside the can speaks for itself.

I should note that the six packs will include a complementary churchkey so you can actually open the flat top steelies and get to the beer inside. The beer will be available at better beer retailers around the Pacific Northwest. In other words, bottleshops and better grocery stores.

Who’s Behind the Curtain

So exactly who is behind this idea? Well, for now they have asked to remain anonymous. Since we are talking about a licensed brewery, it is all a matter of public record but I am honoring their request not to mention any names here. Usually a story about a new brewery is a story about the people behind it, but Churchkey wants the focus to remain squarely on the product. The players involved are not names you would recognize from the local beer scene.

In the coming weeks and months we will have more to tell you. We will tell you more about the two home brewers that came up with the original recipe and we will tell you more about the characters behind The Churchkey Can Company.

Follow them on Twitter.

 

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