Published on July 12th, 2016 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Can dude attitude
There’s not a lot new under the sun. Alastair Gilmour is impressed by 80-year-old technology when it comes to getting the best out of beer.
We’ve had hooked metal openers, draught flow systems, pressure-sensitive widgets, ring-pulls of varying efficiencies, and once again the beer spotlight is on the can.
Beer in cans is more popular than ever due to one simple fact; the liquid inside the aluminium shell has never tasted better or been of higher quality. The rise of the craft beer sector – where small-batch cask and keg production is aimed at the more flavour-seeking drinker – has taken the once-derided tin and given it a purpose. Stylish beer deserves stylish dispense and stylish graphics in a stylish handful which all come in this contemporary package of normally 330ml in size – and is there a more welcoming sequence of sounds than psst, crick, glug, aahh?
The Kreuger Brewing Company of Newark, New Jersey, began selling canned beer to the American public in 1935. The can – then made of hefty metal – was virtually indestructible, but still lighter and more compact for shipping than glass bottles.
The first British brewer to produce beer in cans was Felinfoel Brewing Company in Llanelli, South Wales, in 1936, which took full advantage of the steel industry on its doorstep. Within a short time, other British brewers had cottoned on, particularly those with large export markets across the Empire.
The advantages of weight, space and handling were obvious. Rather than having flat tops as in the US, British cans were conical on top, like the old Brasso tins, as it meant they could be filled on existing bottling lines without huge investment in new machinery.
But the real hike in canned beer sales came in the 1950s with the rise in popularity of the take-home trade – even though the common consent was that the beer tasted “tinny” and the cans (flat-topped by now) had to be pierced with an opener supplied with every purchase.
The ring-pull was canned beer’s saviour, regarded as the ultimate in convenience drinking, and went hand-in-hand with the burgeoning home-grown lager sector (highlighted by Tennents in Scotland). By the 1980s, however, enthusiasm for bland, fizzy beers was starting to be overtaken by a preference for premium, distinctive beer – in a bottle.
The widget (pioneered by Guinness, which forced carbon dioxide through the liquid) came and went, as did the draught flow system, but now the can is back, not only with verve and va-voom, ultimate user-friendliness, and – most crucially – fantastic beer inside.
“Our cans have sold so well it’s taken us by surprise,” says Ross Holland at Box Social Brewing in Newcastle. “People are definitely coming round to the fact that canned beers aren’t what they used to be.
“The beer keeps better, there are no problems with light getting to it as can happen with bottles, and they’re recyclable. It’s a no-brainer.
“It was a worry at first that people wouldn’t take to them but pubs like The Telegraph in Newcastle and all the Head of Steam outlets, plus off-licenses like Coppers in Gosforth, Rehills in Jesmond and Glug in Newcastle’s Grainger Market are very, very pleased with the way they’re going.”
Box Social has booked BrewDog in Newcastle on July 24 to officially launch its canned range which now numbers four with the recent introduction of a Brown Ale. The slight worry is that the cans have proved so popular, the stocks might be somewhat diminished by then.
“We’re over the moon,” says Ross. “The cans are massively outselling our bottles – and we thought they were doing well.”
One interesting development is that beer cans themselves have become something of a blank canvas for graphic designers.
“My favourite graphics are those on Beavertown’s cans,” says London-based food and drink expert Rupert Ponsonby, who despite his top-drawer name, was formerly a scrap merchant. Public Relations is now his game – R&R Teamwork to be precise – but before he got into what he terms “the wild and wacky world of PR” his business was recycling aluminium cans.
“We baled them up and sent them in containers to Japan where – as the aluminium had a high magnesium content, they were turned into car engines and sent back again.
“After canning beer started at Felinfoel they morphed through various polymers, tinned steels and aluminium into what they are today.
“Why do I love them? They keep the beer as the brewer intended. They are light to carry, for humans or lorries. They don’t break. They carry graphics beautifully. They stack well in the fridge. They chill quickly – like me. They’re good for picnics, good for music events and recycle easily.
“In short, aluminium and I are very close – we have an unbreakable, slightly polymered bond.”
Box Social Brewing has been sending beer in special containers to a company in Hereford which specialises in liquids packaging. WeCan Solutions also offers a doorstep service, as Fell Brewery in Flookburgh, Cumbria discovered.
“December 22 2015 was a momentous day for Fell Brewery,” says Fell Brewery co-founder Andrew Carter. “Our new friends at WeCan Solutions visited the brewery to squirt delicious Fell beer into sexy little cans.
“This is something we’ve been planning since last summer and it is extremely gratifying to see it come to fruition. Knowing our beers taste best when delivered with as little interference as possible, we have always been on the lookout for a practical solution that could transport the beer to customers at home in a state we could be proud of.
“When we found out about mobile canning and that they would let us fill the cans our way, we were very excited. Our canned beer – Robust Porter and Tinderbox IPA for now – are unfined, unfiltered and unpasteurised, resulting in maximum flavour from minimal interference.
“They are also can-conditioned, meaning we dosed the beer with sugar and yeast so it has undergone a secondary fermentation in the can to supply the fizz.
“This felt more appropriate for what is a true craft product fashioned with passion and care.
“Cans? We are very happy with them.”
It’s entirely appropriate that a brewery such as Roosters in Yorkshire should become one of the North’s first in-house canners. Now owned and operated by Ian Fozard and his sons Tom and Oliver, Roosters was founded by Sean Franklin in 1993, a man steeped in the wine trade then blazed a brewing trail with his pioneering use of American hops more than 20 years ago.
The move into the canned beer market reflects the brewery’s continued focus on quality and comes as part of a period of investment that has already seen new vessels and equipment installed.
Tom Fozard says: “It’s all going great. When we made the decision to invest in our own canning line –and all the other associated equipment and vessels – a little over two years ago – we did it with one eye on export.
“But as things stand, we haven’t been able to make that happen, due to the demand in the UK particularly across Yorkshire and the North East.
“We invested in a semi-automated canning line from a company in Canada which has been producing such bits of kits for a lot of the smaller, up-and-coming breweries in the US. In fact, Oscar Blues, who pioneered the craft beer canning revolution on the other side of the pond in the early 2000s started on pretty much the same bit of kit that we have.
“We launched three core beers in can in January – Yankee, Fort Smith and Baby-Faced Assassin. All three have been met with a great response, but Assassin has proven to be a runaway success.”
There appears to be no limits on what canned beer can achieve – Box Social’s are very tactile, not shiny and slippery, while seasonal and limited-edition beers are perfect for short-run production, such as Roosters’ Roots Rock Reggae and pale ale hybrid Pilsnear (it’s not only the graphics that get a run-out, but names as well).
One company benefitting from the canned beer phenomenon is Coppers off-license in Brunton Park, Gosforth, Newcastle. Shelves are apparently hardly stocked before another order is placed.
“In 2015 we only had a handful of cans,” says shop owner Andrew Cossey. “In early 2016 we did a check and found we had between 60 and 70 different styles of canned beer. Everybody’s doing them – Wylam Brewery, Tyne Bank, Box Social – it’s a terrific development.
“Some of the artwork is amazing; you can get more information on them; you can drop them and they bounce, and they’re more sealed than a bottle, if you see what I mean. Everyone these days is a flavour junkie, so you could say I’m a fan of the can.
“It’s also great sitting down with the brewers who are going to put the beer in the can – that’s what’s lush about this trade, we’re all wanting to help each other.”
And, as always, it’s the advances in technology that allow brewers to do something they could only have dreamt of a few years ago.
“It’s fascinating how they attach the ring pulls to the can top,” says Rupert Ponsonby. “Now there are different pieces (to the cans) and different types of aluminium, and the can body is different again. In the US, hobos get their dosh by recycling them.”
It would appear everybody wins cans down.