Bevvy metal: The comeback of canned beers

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

02 August 2017

With no quality control issues and a great chance to show off some funky branding, the humble tin can is making a comeback for both beer and cider. Jane Peyton BS reports on a format reborn

Metal cans are a packaging format that is simultaneously derided and revered. For some, it’s seen as old fashioned; associated with football hooligans, marauding stag parties, or teenagers drinking on park benches.

But anyone who has looked recently in the bar fridge of a craft beer pub will have noticed a plethora of them sharing shelf space with glass bottles. Cans are increasingly considered to be ultra-modern – but only as long as the brewery is credible, sexy, and the branding is spot on.

Like most aspects of craft beer, the latter-day can movement started up in the US, where the now-defunct Mid-Coast Brewing sent shock waves through the industry in 1991 by choosing to package in cans, ostensibly because they were less expensive than bottles.

By the 2000s other American brewers had followed their lead and now craft brewers around the world are choosing to can, rather than bottle, beer.

As the can is 100% printable we are able to get maximum graphic craziness out to people’s shelves and into their fridges

Logan Plant

In Britain the Can Makers Association saw an opportunity to encourage brewers to trial their beer in cans and founded the Indie Beer Can Festival in 2014.

Martin Constable, chairman of the association, told Imbibe, ‘When we launched the festival we wanted to demonstrate to independent brewers how cool canned beer could be. We have achieved that. Craft beer in a can is undoubtedly on trend.’

Tiny Rebel, one of Wales’ leading breweries would doubtless agree. It won the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) Supreme Champion Beer of Britain award with its flagship beer Cwtch, and this year it started canning it and others in the range.

Brewery co-founder Gazz Williams explains the benefits. ‘Cans do have some advantages: they’re lighter to transport, have 360-degree branding, take up less shelf space and chill down more quickly. But we love our glass bottles just as much as we do our cans!’

Freshness and quality of the beer is, of course, foremost among the reasons for choosing to use cans, but their being seen by customers as ‘now’ is significant as well.

In a highly competitive, fast-moving market, craft beer drinkers are often fickle and care about how their buying choices will be perceived by people in the pub, in their ratings apps, and on their Instagram feed. Cans, quite simply, look good!

Arguably, the biggest factor of canning in the booming craft beer area has been the emergence of small-scale mobile canning units where the packaging comes to the beer rather than vice-versa. This allows small breweries to eliminate the logistics and cost of transporting beer to a static contract cannery – which will also demand high minimum volumes.

Going mobile
Them That Can set up its mobile canning service in 2015 and is now so busy the company has purchased two more units to fulfil demand. The operators arrive at the brewery in a van, unload the machine then set up by the beer tanks. Everything is meticulously washed and tested before canning begins. The cans are purged with CO2, filled with beer, capped, seamed, rinsed and dried before being packaged into boxes or pallets.

‘It gives breweries proper control when they aren’t contracting it out,’ says co-owner Jamie Kenyon. ‘Canning on-site prevents the need to move beer around, which is a positive thing as it rules out temperature fluctuations, inevitable dissolved oxygen issues and eliminates the potential for infection during transport and transfer.

One business that both packages its beer in cans and sells them in its on-trade sites is the North Brewing Co. In addition to its brewery it owns seven bars in Leeds and West Yorkshire and was the winner of the Publican Awards Best Brewing Pub Company 2017. Matt Gladman, a stock and compliance auditor says, ‘From a bar owner’s point of view, can design tends to be more interesting than traditional bottles which leads to better-looking fridges, and in a practical sense cans stack easier than bottles. From a customer’s point of view if it is a style they have not had before, they’ll be more tempted to try it if it’s in an attractive can.’

Brewers such as Magic Rock, Dry Gate, and Cloudwater have embraced this, and their works of art are not just the beer inside the can. Beavertown is perhaps the most obvious example of this, with the most distinctive branding of any brewer.

It packages its beer in both glass bottles and cans depending on style.

‘The can is a blank canvas just waiting to be printed upon,’ says Beavertown’s founder, Logan Plant. ‘Our brand is driven by Nick Dwyer’s amazing designs. As the can is 100% printable we are able to get maximum graphic craziness out to people’s shelves and into their fridges.

‘This allows our brand to visually differentiate us within the market which is key. Not only do we pride ourselves on making great beer, but also on creating amazing packaging.’

London’s Four Pure Brewery was the first in Britain to can its entire core range. The company owns the largest canning line in UK craft brewing, a state-of-the-art kit that handles 15,000 cans per hour. Unsurprisingly, the company’s co-founder, Dan Lowe, is heavily committed to the world of the can. ‘The shift to cans from smaller brewers like ourselves opens the door to new styles and flavours that haven’t previously been available in this environment. We think it’s really exciting.’

Yes We Can
Beers that work well in cans range from those with a delicate flavour profile such as Four Pure’s new Indy Lager, a Helles style; beers with a bold hop character; hazy pale ales with soft bitterness and juicy fruit hop flavours that are often referred to as New England IPAs, and dark beers with revved-up roastiness.

Cans open up a variety of opportunities for the on-trade. In busy times they quickly chill the beer inside, are swift to serve, and some will not even ask for a glass. In beer gardens and pop-up bars their portability and sturdiness are major benefits.

These factors have led some brewers to package in glass bottles and cans so their customers can choose the preferred packaging for informal or formal drinking occasions. Wild Beer Company is renowned for its highly imaginative range of beers that are perfect for the dining table and packaged in elegant-shaped bottles often sealed in wax. They recently released a capsule collection in cans. Andrew Cooper, co-founder, explains. ‘The type of beers we can are easy drinking, everyday beers. The can experience from buying to drinking is casual, grab and go.’

Real ale drinkers had, until recently, been left out of the move towards cans because can-conditioned British-brewed beer was not an option.

But Justin Hawke, owner of Moor Beer and a well-known advocate for unfiltered and unfined beer, has changed that. The company invested heavily in a custom-built canning line – a huge risk that has paid off. CAMRA now recognises Moor Beer as real ale in a can.

Cider the times
Most of the craft conversation refers to beer, but cider is slowly joining in. It’s already big news in the States, and several cider brands were at this year’s Craft Beer Rising. Currently, few British cider companies that make their cider from freshly pressed apples (not concentrate) package in cans. But Thatcher’s is one of the minority that does so.

‘With the explosion of cans within the craft beer category we’re seeing the same happening within cider,’ says fourth-generation cider maker Martin Thatcher. ‘There’s a trend right across the drinks industry for 330ml cans, which are particularly popular with 25 –35 year-olds.’

The company has responded to this by releasing two new ciders, Barrel Roller and Leaf Twister, in the smaller sized can, both of them fitting into the refreshing carbonated, easy-drinking, medium-dry style that suits being packaged in cans. This is timely innovation in an industry where tradition and heritage is prized.

Cidersmiths recognises this, and the company purposely chose branding with an urban look – slick matt black. Since it started to can its cider, orders have significantly increased, even gaining listings in hip bars that want cider with a perceived edge on the menu.

So have cans finally put aside their teenager/stag-party image? Let’s leave the final word with Moor Beer’s Justin Hawke. ‘Cans still have a cheap image that we are fighting hard to overcome,’ he says. ‘But we are winning – our cans are in Michelin-starred restaurants now!’

Five beers and ciders to win over hardened can-sceptics

8 Ball Rye IPA, Beavertown
Spicy rye meets with zesty citrus, tropical and pine US and southern hemisphere hops for a dry bitterness balanced with maltiness.
6.2%, RRP £2.50/33cl, Beavertown Brewery, 020 8525 9884

Indy Lager, Four Pure
Lots of delicate spice and lovely lemon zestiness in this light, crisp and easy-drinking Helles lager.
4.4%, RRP £2.50/33cl, Fourpure, 020 3744 2141

Piñata Tropical Pale Ale, North Brewing Co
Guava and mango, with orange and grapefruit peel all added to ramp up the luscious fruit-salad character of this hazy juice bomb.
4.5%, RRP £2.50/33cl, North Brewing Co, 0113 345 3290

Dark Alliance, Moor Beer
For coffee heads who like their flavour fix in beer form too. This coffee stout delivers that in spades with additional dark chocolate and spiced dried fruit character.
4.5%, RRP £2.50/33cl, Moor Beer, 01179 414460

Reveller Medium Dry Cider, Orchard Pig
Ripe fruity apple flavour in an easy-drinking sparkling cider with mild tannins, a balance of sweetness followed by a tangy citrus finish.
4.5%, RRP £1.30/44cl, Orchard Pig, 01458 851222

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