Friday, 11 July 2014

Can this be the future?

There’s nothing that the old-school CAMRA true believer despises more than canned beer. It is the spawn of the devil, it never has any redeeming features. He will probably call it “tinned beer” as a way of further belittling it. As it says in the editorial intro to the Out Inn Cheshire magazine, “anything in tins is always, very, very bad”.

However, in recent years canning has been enthusiastically taken up by the US craft beer movement, as described here. The off-trade is relatively more important in the US than in the UK and so that is a market they cannot afford to ignore. Cans offer significant advantages over bottles – they are lighter, and thus cheaper and more environmentally friendly to transport, they are more easily recycled, they prevent the contents being lightstruck, and they offer a much bigger canvas for the brewer to make a statement. The bold can designs favoured by many US craft brewers are very different from their usually much more restrained British equivalents.

So far this trend doesn’t seem to have made much impact on this side of the pond. Yes, BrewDog have produced Punk IPA in cans, and I believe it was even spotted in Sainsbury’s a few years back, although never by me. And some of the more “new wave” mainstream beers such as Old Golden Hen and Ghost Ship have appeared in cans too.

But things appear to be moving, with a growing number of British craft beers, such as Camden Hells, being made available in cans. And a line was crossed earlier this year when Wetherspoons introduced three canned US craft beers from the Sixpoint Brewery. Initially, many, including me, were sceptical about this, but their popularity seems to have steadily grown, with several beer bloggers even saying that they were the best thing to drink in Spoons.

I’ve reviewed them myself here. Not a huge fan, but it’s an interesting innovation. And, slowly but steadily, the dam seems to be breaking, and the acceptance of “quality” beer in cans is growing. Only the other day, I spotted Pistonhead Lager in one of my local pubs. OK, this may be “faux craft”, but it’s certainly aimed at the craft market.

There’s a growing population of younger drinkers who don’t recognise the old-fashioned negative connotations of cans and who are eager to embrace something that seems contemporary, funky and eco-friendly. There’s even a Twitter hashtag going #Summerofcans.

Could it turn out that it is the acceptance of cans, rather than craft keg, that turns out to be the ultimate factor leading to the sundering of the new-wave beer enthusiasts from the real ale diehards? Drinking beer from a can is a pretty decisive statement of rejection of the old certainties.

I wonder how long it will be before the first craft can turns up in my local Tesco. But I do wish they’d sell it (at least at lower strengths) in the proper 500ml cans rather than those kiddypops 330ml or 355ml sizes. Also, if craft cans are to take off, it may require the abandonment of the prejudice against selling single cans on the grounds that it makes them more accessible to problem drinkers. You’re much more likely to experiment with one can than a multipack, which is one of the reasons behind the success of bottled premium ales and world beers in the off-trade.

Edit: no sooner had I put this post up than this appeared on Twitter - surely Beavertown are the crafterati’s craft brewery...


  1. ha ha yes

    "Tins are always very, very bad"

    That beardy bunch must scare off most of the boozers of that area and live up to the beardy odd ball stereotype we know and love.

  2. I do like a good can, and definitely agree with you about 500 ml rather than 330/355 being a good idea. I mean, you can get Sierra Nevada Torpedo at 7.2% in that size, Beavertown need to put their Neck Oil in 500s!

  3. I quite like the little cans, less time for the beer to go warm, and opening one never seems like a bad idea, compared to that final pint can of Carling that you always open but can never quite finish, eh Cookie?

  4. I may be unusual in this, but I always pour them into a glass before drinking. 330ml of 4.6% beer just doesn't seem like a proper drink.

  5. You are the poshest tramp in the park, Mudgie.

  6. I'd dispute your differentiation between the terms 'tinned' and 'canned'. 'Tinned' was at one time the more usual British term, while 'canned' is an Americanism that has taken root over here.

    Neither term has any implications of quality.

  7. I know it used to be commonplace to refer to "tinned peaches" and the like, but I don't recall it ever being normal to talk of "tinned beer" rather than "canned beer". And it's certainly a sneering affectation in 2014.

  8. Canned John Smiths Smooth,£1 a pint in local shop ,cant fault it,
    5 cans for fiver ,round to the friends flat for a session with the old gang ,have a laugh and a SMOKE or, taxi(£10) to a near empty pub ,£3.60p a pint,stand in the gutter for a smoke,put up with
    mutants and cannot be serious.


  9. The Aussies call cans of beer 'Tinnies', so there must be some history in the term, tinned beer.

    I have a mate who spent a few years in Oz. He will now say he's going out for some cans when buying them, but drinking a tinny when opening them.

  10. Is there a problem with cans, or just perception?

    I've read a load of stuff about wine storage and blind tastings and for young wine, no-one get tell the difference in boxes or with screwcaps, but for wines that age over a decade there does seem to be some merit to cork.

  11. I came close to having some canned beer on my bar at Stockport Beer Festival this year. It's certainly something I'll be looking into next time around - especially as some of these beers are in fact "can conditioned" (yes, really). One thing is true though, cans are no longer "always very, very bad".

  12. maybe the tin vs can thing is a localism as neither have ever had any bad connotations in this neck of the woods, and Websters Yorkshire bitter (in the top 5 sold cask ales at the time I think) was being sold in tins/cans nigh on 30 years ago so despite the young folk claiming everything is a new innovation,its not always the case :)

    and I still dont think the Wetherspoons can/us craft thing meaningfully can be used to draw any conclusions from, the fact they are now 99p each in some places, or 3 for 2.50, when originally they were nearer 2.50 each, and they now seem to provide a handy cardboard carrier,as its obviously hard to carry 3 cans to a table, or are they blurring those lines between on and off trade again. And Ive still not seen anyone buy one,ask to try one,notice them,talk about at the bar or anything, half the spoons I visit seem to have them hidden away bottom shelf of the fridge where they stay.

  13. Oh, cans have been around in large numbers since the late 60s, but in the early days of CAMRA they got a very negative image. Also, in those days there was some truth to the claim that they imparted a metallic taste to beer.

    More recently, at least as far as ale goes, they gained a downmarket, "old man" image.

    But I think there is a generation now to whom this is all irrelevant historical baggage.

    Spoons' experience with the cans has been distinctly mixed - they seem to have gone much better in some branches than others. But they have been reordered (albeit in smaller nunmbers).

  14. Anyway, I've created a poll to sort it out once and for all ;-)

  15. The view that canned beer is shite may be one held by a lot of beer enthusiasts and CAMRA types, but the general consumer has been embracing the product for 50 years. The take home packaged beer market will soon become more significant than the hospitality sector.

    Whether cans will become an accepted part of the hospitality sector is something I doubt. Maybe craft beer fans will like them, but most pub goers will continue to want draught or bottles. Why pay more to drink in a pub and drink the same as a cheap take home?

  16. Almost every beer drinker wants draught beer, whether cask or keg. Bottle is only really an emergency option if the draught beer is dreadful/off/poorly chilled, OR if you want to dance whilst still drinking.

  17. Speaking of Punk IPA in cans, I did find some in Sainsbury's a couple of years back. I was curious as to whether the end product would be different from the bottled version , so I ran a quick side-by-side taste test. Identical glasses, poured the same way, all that. In the end I genuinely preferred the bottled version. The canned beer seemed gassier - it certainly frothed up in the glass a lot more - and thinner. The hop flavours were less distinct as well.

    It was just the one test of course, so hardly conclusive. But I wouldn't say the canned version was "very, very bad", just not as good as the bottled.

  18. @py - I'd say they're predominantly aimed at home drinking, not pubs. However, there is a substantial market for bottled beer in pubs

  19. I wrote a post about cans back in September last year, and I notice you commented on it, Mudgie.
    I was prompted to write it following my visit to Japan earlier in the year; a country where cans are very common in the take-home trade, primarily for their supposed “green” credentials.

    A comparison between the various advantages, and disadvantages of both cans and bottles, was one of the topics at the recent European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin, and whilst no definite conclusions were reached, cans do appear very popular in the American take-home market.

    It seems some European brewers are pushing them too, as we were given some very nice looking cans of Pilsner Urquell to take away with us and try. I’ll be posting about this at a later date, but I do feel I was able to tell the difference, taste-wise, between the bottled and canned versions of this Czech classic.

    In the meantime Mudgie, I would agree whole-heartedly with your comment that “If cans are really going to make inroads into the premium bottled ale and craft beer sectors, retailers need to grasp the nettle of selling individual cans rather than just four-packs, as drinkers want to experiment with a variety of different beers.”

    Somehow I can’t see it happening though!

  20. It used to be the case that cans imparted a metallic taste to the contents, but can technology has moved on a lot. Modern drinks cans have a thin plastic coating on the inside. This coating is spray-coated into the can after it is formed and prevents the contents from contacting the aluminium.

    It also used to be the case that canned beer was shit because the only beer you could buy in cans was Tennants, Carling, McEwans etc., but brewers are clearly putting some better beers into cans nowadays. I know my local Tesco has had Old Speckled Hen, Abbot Ale and the like in cans for a number of years now, and it looks like the "craft" brewers are about to follow suit.


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