Friday, 25 July 2014

Can the Can

One of the most interesting presentations and discussions that took place at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Dublin last month concerned the humble beer can. The discussion was led by James Winans of the Vanguard Beer Collective; a “one stop shop” organisation for the promotion, and supply of Irish Craft Beers. The presentation kicked off with a bit of history to set the scene, then examined the relative advantages of cans over glass. I have added some of my own thoughts and views on the matter, and have also researched the rise of the beer can in slightly more depth.

Persuading consumers to accept beer in cans proved a long and painful process; a process which only really started to take off during the late 1930’s, in America. Although cans were in every day use for the mass distribution of foodstuffs during the late 19th century, it wasn't until 1909 that the American Can Company made its first attempt to can beer. This was unsuccessful, and the company would have to wait for the end of Prohibition in the United States before it tried again. Finally in 1933, after two years of research, the American Can Company developed a can that was capable of withstanding pressurisation and which had a special coating to prevent the beer reacting chemically with the tinplate which the can was made from.

Some rather non-PC 1930's cans from Krueger
Canned beer finally made its debut in 1935, when in partnership with the American Can Company, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company delivered 2,000 cans of Krueger's Finest Beer and Krueger's Cream Ale to faithful Krueger drinkers in Richmond, Virginia. It is claimed that over ninety percent of drinkers approved of the canned beer, giving Krueger the green light to continue production.

The concept of canned beer proved to be a hard sell, but Krueger's overcame its initial reservations and became the first brewer to sell canned beer in the United States. The response was overwhelming. Within three months, over 80 percent of distributors were handling Krueger's canned beer, and Krueger's was eating into the market share of the "Big Three" national brewers--Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and Schlitz. Competitors soon followed suit, and by the end of 1935, over 200 million cans had been produced and sold.

The purchase of cans, unlike bottles, did not require the consumer to pay a deposit. Cans were also easier to stack, more durable and took less time to chill. As a result, their popularity continued to grow throughout the 1930s, and then exploded during World War II, when U.S. brewers shipped millions of cans of beer to its armed forces,

After the war, national brewing companies began to take advantage of the mass distribution that cans made possible, and were able to consolidate their power over the once-dominant local breweries, which could not control costs and operations as efficiently as their national counterparts.

Today, canned beer accounts for approximately half of the $20 billion U.S. beer industry. Not all of this comes from the big national brewers: Recently, there has been renewed interest in canning from micro brewers and high-end beer-sellers, who are realising that cans guarantee purity and taste by preventing light damage and oxidation.

Cone-top cans from Felinfoel Brewery
The first British brewery to try tinned beer was Felinfoel of Llanelli. Canned beer was introduced as a means of  boosting the local tin-plate industry, which was struggling at the time. I have seen photos of some of these early cans. They had a conical top, and were sealed with a traditional crown-cork. Whilst growing up I can remember certain items being packaged in these sorts of tins, although as neither of my parents were drinkers, I don’t ever recall seeing beer cans of this sort. From memory it was substances like furniture, or metal polish (Brasso), that were filled into these cone-shaped containers; perhaps this is why I have always associated tinned, or canned beer with having a metallic taste.

I do remember having to pierce cans with a pointed instrument, specially designed for the purpose, and it was necessary to make two holes; one to let the contents out and the other to let air in. I am talking about soft-rinks here, but beer was also marketed in these sorts of cans, which by now had lost their conical top, and looked just like any other ordinary can.

Aluminium cans first became available in the United States, during the late 1950’s. Their lighter weight, and greater durability meant they rapidly replaced the older, heavier, tin-plate cans. Then in 1959, Ermal Fraze devised a can-opening method that would come to dominate the canned beverage market. His invention was the "ring-pull-tab". This eliminated the need for a separate opener tool by attaching an aluminium pull-ring lever, with a rivet to a pre-scored wedge-shaped tab section of the can top. The ring was riveted to the centre of the top, which created an elongated opening large enough that one hole simultaneously served to let the beverage flow out while air flowed in.

The first “ring-pull” cans I was aware of, featured in an advertisement of  Long Life beer; Ind Coope’s premium pale ale brand. The ad made great play of the ring-pull, and of the fact the beer was designed and packaged for home-drinking, and the voice-over said, “Home is where you drink your Long Life; the beer brewed specially for the home, in ring-pull cans.” Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of this advert on You Tube was of such poor quality, that it wasn’t worth including a link to it.

By the 1970s, ring-pull cans were widely available, but they came with a significant problem, as people would frequently discard the ring-pulls on the ground as litter, or drop them into the can and risk choking on them. Towards the end of the decade, Daniel Cudzik's invention of the non-removing "Sta-Tab" solved the problem. The ring-pull was replaced with a stiff aluminium lever, and the removable pull-tab was replaced with a pre-scored round tab with a riveted lever which pushed the tab open and into the interior of the can.

Today, most people, particularly in the UK, associate canned beer with cheap, tasteless lager, or equally cheap and tasteless bitter. However, in other countries cans have a much better image, and have become very popular in the United States I have written before on this subject; something which was prompted by my visit to Japan last year. There cans are extremely popular, especially on environmental grounds. But cans score highly in other ways too, being light and therefore easier to transport. They chill down quicker than glass well, and are ideal for taking on picnics, due to less weight. Finally, cans are often permitted at events where glass bottles are not.

Cans therefore win on cost, convenience, ecology and taste.  Although canning costs a lot to set up initially, once the plant is up and running the ecological advantages of the can really start to creep in. Advocates of the can, and brewers who are choosing cans, say there are clear advantages over bottles: The beer in a can cools quicker. The can protects from beer-degrading light. Beer cans are portable and take up less space, advantages both for retailers and for consumers who want to take them camping, hiking or fishing, or to sports or other outdoor events.. There is also more space on a can for wraparound design and decoration.

Retro-style Pilsner Urquell cans
Some quite large brewers are pushing ahead with promoting cans as the ideal way to store and transport beer, and this was brought home to us in Dublin at the Summer Barbecue on the Saturday lunchtime, hosted by Pilsner Urquell. There, in the courtyard, was a huge stack of cans, on display,  ready for us to take away and try. What’s more the cans were decorated with some old designs taken from the brewery’s archives, giving them a real retro look. I brought my cans home with me, but then, rather foolishly, drank them all without carrying out a taste comparison with the bottled version of Pilsner Urquell. 

A choice of container from Crafty Dan
However, all is not lost as those good folk at Beer52 have come up trumps by including both a bottle plus a canned version of Crafty Dan 13 Guns; Daniel Thwaites’ recently launched American IPA in the case of beer they sent me recently. I tried both versions side by side, and have to admit I found it difficult, to tell the difference; certainly so far as taste is concerned, although I did prefer the mouth-feel of the bottled beer, which was tighter, if that makes sense. The canned version seemed looser, and what I think this conveys is that the dissolved gas within the beer was present as much finer bubbles in the bottles than in the cans.

So much for my rather inconclusive verdict, but from what I read and hear I would say that the jury’s definitely still out on this one. What do other people think?


Unknown said...

Interesting points, especially regarding taste. Fuggles in TWells hosted a can vs bottle blind tasting, and the bottles were found to have more flavour and enhanced aroma. Thoughts were that this could be to finer filtration to remove yeast in the cans. Cans were seen to give less haze, bit overall the blind tasting was awarded to bottles. As the saying goes, dont believe the hype.

Curmudgeon said...

I wonder if there is some difference in the carbonation process between cans and bottles.

I've never actually done a back-to-back tasting, but have found cans of Courage Directors pretty palatable.

Paul Bailey said...

In the end, taste has to be the final arbiter when it comes to choosing between bottles or cans.

It's no good cans winning on environmental and convenience grounds if the beer ends up tasting inferior.

Sounds like more back-to-back tastings are required.