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Sustainability steers Hardywood brewery toward change

Barras moves around on a lift
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News
Inventory Coordinator Spencer Barras works Tuesday at the West Creek location of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond.

As more canned beer appears in stores, the craft brewer said it’ll phase out bottles by the end of 2023.

Hardywood Park Craft Brewery recently announced it’ll phase out bottles by the end of 2023 and use only cans to distribute its beer in an effort to run a more sustainable business.  

“For us, the desire was always to offer the most environmentally conscious package that met our customer's needs,” said Eric McKay, CEO and co-founder of the brewery, which has locations in Scott’s Addition and West Creek. “And I think those two things have started to come together more and more with cans. They're lightweight. And it costs a lot less to ship them to our distributors and retailers.” 

The switch to having Hardywood's beer strictly in cans also falls in line with the company's credo, according to McKay: “Brew with purpose.”

“We brew with 100% renewable energies,” he said. “Since we started, we've been sourcing all our electricity through the Dominion Green Power Program, which is now 100% wind- and solar-sourced.”

A portrait of McKay standing in front of barrells
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News
CEO and Co-Founder Eric McKay recently announced Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond would stop using bottles to package its beer.

Though glass bottles are recyclable, there’s a significant difference between using glass and aluminum to distribute beer.

“The difference is aluminum is endlessly recyclable. So, it can be recycled over and over again, infinitely, unlike some other materials that can only be recycled once or a few times,” said Kim Hynes, executive director for Central Virginia Waste Management Authority. “Also, aluminum, once it's recycled, can be back on store shelves in as little as 60 days.”

A secondary benefit to cans, Hynes said, is that recycling aluminum cans saves energy by not requiring mining for all the raw material that goes into making them.

Canned beers, though, are a part of Richmond’s beer legacy. On Jan. 24, 1935 — about a year after Prohibition ended — they debuted at city stores. New Jersey–based Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company, working with the American Can Company, selected the city as a test market for the invention.

Soon, 2,000 cans of Krueger’s Cream Ale and Krueger’s Finest Beer were available to Richmond residents. More than 90% of beer drinkers approved of the beer cans.

Hardywood’s idea to switch entirely to cans came last year, after it purchased a rotary counter pressure can filler.

“We were able to pull the funds together to invest in what is a pretty large-scale canning line, which is capable of counter pressure filling,” said McKay. “And counter pressure is really the only way to keep oxygen from the beer.”

Also called the ProFill Can Filler, the almost 10-foot-high machine is encased in steel and glass and connected to a twisting assembly line of thousands of empty cans. The counter pressure allows the machine to remove oxygen before filling and sealing the can, according to the manufacturer.

Cans line up to be filled
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News
Cans are ready to be filled Tuesday, September 19, 2023 at the West Creek location of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond.

“This machine is rated to fill up to 10,000 cans an hour. We generally run it about 70% of that,” said McKay. That's about 7,000 per hour.

Another benefit, he said, is that cans keep out light, which can affect beer’s taste.

“Clear glass and green glass, in particular, are known for having an almost skunk-like aroma, which is almost like a sewage-type aroma,” said McKay. “And then oxidation contributes kind of like a wet cardboard, wet newspaper–like character to beer. And it can affect the color of it, as well, generally [giving] it kind of a brownish color.”

As for the taste, studies have suggested that if a person sees the beer's packaging, bottled beer is preferred. But if beer is presented to a person in a glass, beverages that were previously canned received higher ratings, according to Tasting Table, a food and beverage website that showcased two studies.

It’s too soon to tell whether other Virginia craft brewers will follow Hardywood’s lead and shift completely to cans. But Jeff Hunt — co-owner of Bottleworks, a specialty beverage shop in Bon Air — said the trend seems to be moving in that direction.

“Six or seven years ago when we opened, we had more bottles,” he said. “Now, we have so many beers in cans.”

Corrected: September 21, 2023 at 5:35 PM EDT
A previous version of this story misstated how the the ProFill Can Filler functions. Oxygen is removed during the canning process.
Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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