Can It!

knickerbocker_can.jpgRecently, a thread was started on the Bar Towel forum that was intended to be a place for people to discuss what they saw as positive developments in the beer selection at the LCBO. Given that hating the LCBO seems to be considered by many as a prerequisite for being a craft beer drinker in Ontario, this was an interesting attempt at diplomacy.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the discussion to go in a completely opposite direction, because obviously the dozens of other Bar Towel threads slamming the LCBO in one way or another just aren’t enough for some people. But then, somewhere around the middle of the second page of the thread, it shifted yet again into a discussion of the pros and cons of using cans to package craft beer.

As you’ll see from my contribution to the thread, I’m pretty solidly on the pro-can side of things, although I haven’t always been. I recall, for example, being quite shocked during a visit to a small brewery in Quebec about 5 or 6 years ago when the brewer said that he would prefer to see his beer available in cans rather than bottles. They way he saw it, the beer would stay fresher for longer, which would make for happier customers.

(Of course, considering that this same brewery has since become infamous for quality control issues that cause many of their beers to become infected and go sour soon after bottling, it could be argued that dealing with what they’re putting into the bottles is probably more important than switching those bottles to cans.)

Anyway – my shocked reaction made some sense, since in the Ontario market at the time, cans were almost exclusively the domain of “premium” macro-lagers like Blue and Bud, or stomach churning buck-a-beers. Much like the “cork vs. screw-cap” debate in the wine world, bottles had a sense of class and dignity that was perfect for well-crafted beer, while cans were meant for shotgunning swill at frat parties or chugging overpriced corn-lager at ball games.

But then, a couple of things happened that changed my mind. First, the LCBO got a big environmental kick, and decreed that preference would be given to canned beer over bottled beer from now on. Arguments about which of the two is truly more environmentally friendly aside, this edict meant that many of the European and UK beers that I enjoyed, such as Pilsner Urquell and London Pride, started being sold in cans rather than bottles at the LC’. And once I tried them, I realized that I actually preferred the canned versions to the bottled! They were fresher and livelier tasting, and in the case of the Urquell in particular, I was happy that I no longer had to annoy LCBO staff by asking them to open a new case for me in order to avoid buying green bottles that had been sitting under fluorescent lights for an indeterminate amount of time.

Around that same time, I caught wind of a small brewery out in Colorado called Oskar Blues that had started canning their Dale’s Pale Ale, a relatively big (6.5%) and hoppy beer – i.e. the sort of beer that I usually like a lot. It took me a while to get my hands on a can, but when I finally got a chance to try it in mid-2006, I was very impressed, and equally so by their even bigger (8%) and similarly packaged Old Chub Scotch Ale. Finally, it sunk in: cans aren’t just good, they’re great, even for true craft-brewed beers.

There are many reasons for cans to be considered superior to bottles as a beer container, many of which are laid out in Lew Bryson’s latest First Draft column on Portfolio.com. The gist of the article is summed up nicely in these two paragraphs:

I just bought four cases of beer for a long weekend upstate-all cans, from three different breweries: I.P.A. from New England Brewing in Connecticut, pilsner and pale ale from Sly Fox in Pennsylvania, and Old Chub Scottish ale from Oskar Blues.

It just makes sense. The can is a superior package to the bottle. Cans are lighter and take up less space, making them cheaper to transport and store. They’re more durable once filled. Cans are completely lightproof, meaning the beer won’t get “skunked,” acquiring the nasty odor that comes from hops compounds breaking down in sunlight. Cans today come with a lining that keeps beer away from the aluminum, eliminating the metallic taste that used to affect canned beer. They seal up with very little air in the can, keeping the beer fresh longer. They’re even cheaper to recycle. Any “but it’s a can” stigma evaporates with the first taste of the emphatically nonmainstream taste.

wellington_cans.jpg

Now, given the poor selection of American craft beers at the LCBO, the fact that a number of small brewers down there are making the move to cans hasn’t had much of an effect on my personal drinking habits. But to bring things full circle back to the Bar Towel thread that inspired this post, the trend has started to catch hold in Ontario, with a number of craft brewers – including Neustadt, Wellington, Great Lakes and Hockley Valley – now offering some or all of their brands in cans.

It certainly hasn’t been a completely painless transition for all of them, as illustrated by several blog posts from Neustadt’s Val Stimpson. But I’m firmly of the opinion that the move from bottles to cans will end up being a positive development for many of Ontario’s craft brewers, most notably because someone looking to try a new beer will probably be much more likely to pick up a single can – or their own mixed pack of a few different ones – than a six-pack of bottles of a single brand that they might end up hating.

It can’t be denied, of course, that cans aren’t an ideal package for every beer. I can’t imagine, for example, that a vintage ale or big barley wine would fare well being cellared in a can for a decade or three. But for shorter term storage of most types of beer, cans beat out bottles in most criteria, save for aesthetics. But as someone notes in the Bar Towel thread, good beer is meant to be poured into and enjoyed out of a glass, so as long as the container keeps it fresh and tasty, why should it matter if it’s a can or a bottle?

(That last line isn’t a completely rhetorical question. I’m interested to hear other opinions on this, so please comment and let me know what you think.)

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4 responses to “Can It!

  1. Hey Greg,
    I’ve recently had two really great canned beers. The first was Surly’s Cynicale. It was a really solid Saison. The second was Oskar Blue’s Ten FIDY Imperial Stout.

    The Cynicale looked great, smelled great & tasted great. The sediment behaved in the same way that sediment would in a standard bottle, hanging around at the bottom until I decided to swirl it for a taste.

    The Ten FIDY also looked great, smelled great and tasted great. The sediment was a problem here though. It had collected in the groove at the bottom of the can & formed a “worm.” That worm made it’s way, unbeknownst to me, into my glass. Being an Imperial Stout, I didn’t notice the sediment until it wriggled into my mouth.

    It was offputting, with approximately the same consistency as something you might hack up if you weren’t feeling well. Imagine if you took the floaties from a bottle of Abbaye Des Rocs beer and compressed them into a single rope – thats what this was. I dumped the beer because, while I realized it probably was just sediment, I didn’t want to think about what else it might be. I posted a thread over at Ratebeer and a representative from Oskar Blues got back to me, explaining the situation.

    I don’t know why the sediments in the two beers behaved so differently. Perhaps one was primarily yeast & the other was made of different solids? Whatever the reason, this is something craft brewers are going to have to deal with if they start putting more unfiltered beers in cans. You can’t have stuff like this happening in a market where you’re trying to convert people to your products.

    I really like the idea of not having to worry about light-stricken beers. I like the fact that they are lighter. I’m not a huge fan of the fact that, if more and more breweries switch to cans, I won’t be able to collect as many bottles for homebrewing, but thats minor.

    What will probably really dissapoint me is aesthetics. A corked, caged 750 is elegant. I don’t know that you can evoke the same feeling with a can. Maybe that is just because I’ve associated cans with bland macros for so long?

    I didn’t follow any of the links you posted here so sorry if this question is answered in one of them. Do you know what a brewery would have to spend to get a canning line vs. what a standard bottling line would cost?

  2. Other thoughts…

    I think that in terms of image you run into a Record vs. CD booklet type of debate. Often times the image on a 6-pack holder is just an enlarged version of what appears on the bottle’s label. Still, that larger version can get more information/feeling across. I’m thinking specifically of Smuttynose’s Robust Porter here – with the strongman holding the cask & the woman. It’s on the labels but the bigger version on the cardboard holder seems “better” to me. I don’t think that feeling can really be quantified but it’s there.

    I recently saw some canned micro (butternuts?) selling 12 packs packaged in cardboard. You get the surface area for art there but how many breweries put out 12 packs? The few I’m aware of do it primarily for samplers.

    Ultimately the contents of the bottle or can matter far more than the visuals on the packaging its an important aspect, if for nothing more than differentiating a product on a crowded shelf. Truthfully if Premier put the Oskar Blue’s cans next to the New England cans it would take me a minute to tell them apart. Something about cans is far more uniform than the dozens of bottles next to them, despite the fact that most of the bottles are of a standard shape.

  3. This sentence makes no sense:
    “Ultimately the contents of the bottle or can matter far more than the visuals on the packaging its an important aspect, if for nothing more than differentiating a product on a crowded shelf.”

    It was supposed to say “Ultimately the contents of the bottle or can matter far more than the visuals on the packaging. Still, you can’t deny that the visuals are an important aspect, if for nothing more than….”

  4. Very good point on the sediment issue, rudy. That’s sort of an extension to my point on the ageing of vintage beers, etc., and how I can’t see cans being as suitable a container for that as bottles. I could be wrong, but something makes me think the ageing process just wouldn’t work as well. The slug-like sediment that you experienced may give some credence to that theory.

    And as for the aesthetics, I agree with you about the importance of well-designed packages, although when it comes to single bottles vs. single cans, I think cans are in a position to win out. Yeah, there are some pretty boring and crappy looking cans out there, but the same can be said for plenty of labels. When a brewery gets serious about the design, though, cans give a lot more space than labels to be creative. Look at the cans from Surly Brewing, for example – very striking, much more so than they would be as labels on bottles.

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