It’s not your father’s beer can – but is it yours?

Considering it was (little-known fact alert) a European brewery that first produced canned beer, in 1933, in Lorraine, France (the Americans only followed two years later) we Europeans have been distinctly sniffy about beer in cans. One French website, talking about the record of the Brasserie Vezelise, “Premiere brasserie Française a mettre de la biere en boite”, adds: “Helas!”. In Britain, anyone who reckoned they knew about beer knew canned beer was, to quote the 1984 Good Beer Guide, “inferior” – tinny-tasting and cheap .

An advertisement from 1933 for canned beer

An advertisement from 1933 for canned beer

In fact canned beer did not have a universally wonderful reputation even in the United States, which invented the name “Joe Sixpack” for Mr Average. When the first canned craft beer appeared there – just 12 years ago, in 2002 – it shook up considerable controversy. Even in 2005, there were not much more than a dozen US craft breweries who had followed Oskar Blues, the Colorado brewer that pioneered craft beer in cans, onto the canning line. By 2012, however, that number had grown to more than 200 brewers making canned craft beer. Today, according to the Cantastic database, the figure is 413 breweries, canning 1,484 different craft beers in 94 styles across 49 states and Washington DC (the one non-craft beer canning state is West Virginia).

But is it any bloody good? I first had canned craft beer in Hong Kong, where several small Japanese craft brewers, such as Yo-Ho, have their beers on sale in cans in classier supermarkets, and where semi-pro American beer importers bring in West Coast craft beer in cans, and lo, ’twas frequently very tasty. Indeed, Yo-Ho’s Yona Yona pale ale became one of my favourite fridge beers. Back in the UK, though, I’ve returned pretty much 100 per cent to bottles for my home beer consumption, simply because the places I buy beer from pretty much solidly don’t sell craft in cans: there still are very few craft beer brewers in Britain canning their beers. But if there were canned beers as good as some of the canned beers I tasted in HK easily available, then I’d be happy to buy them.

Canned beer from Barclay Perkins in 1940

Canned beer from Barclay Perkins in 1940

I was delighted, thus, to get an invitation to last week’s Indie Beer Can Festival, which was set up by the Can Makers, the trade body for British beverage can makers. It was a well-thought-out competition: brewers did not have to be canning their beer already to enter. Out of the initial entrants – and some 70 brewers put themselves forward – 12 were to be picked, and any of the 12 who were not already canning would be given a “limited edition” canning run. They would all go into a blind tasting, and three winners chosen.

All the finalists were available in can for sampling on the day, and I went round with cup, pen and notebook making my own judgment – which one of the entrants’ canned beers would I most like to take on a picnic? The “Breakfast Stout” from Arbor Ales, was tarry, sweet, smooth and warming, but at 7.4%, too strong for a picnic – too strong for breakfast, probably. Longhorn IPA, normally a craft keg beer, from Purity Brewing, 5% abv, had an initial fullness not matched, unfortunately, by the follow-through, and felt comparatively slight against many of the other beers there. Springhead‘s Roaring Meg was light for a 5.5% beer, with honey and grain: a picnic possible. There were two beers from established family brewers in the final, each of which was already being canned: Thwaites’s 13 Guns delivered a lovely mango nose, but frothed up badly in the glass (or plastic cup, rather) which lost it picnic points, while Adnam’s Ghost Ship was a solid, down-the-middle pale ale, but failed to bowl me out.

The one Irish entrant, Blacks of Kinsale‘s Kinsale Pale Ale, was restrained for an American Pale Ale, with biscuit malt more apparent than the tropical notes in the mouth, though there was a good long lingering bitter aftertaste, and I thought this was going to be the picnic test winner. Then I tried Concrete Cow‘s Dirty Cow. Did anything good ever come out of Milton Keynes apart from the A5 to London? Yes, this, a lovely 5% abv mix of American pale ale and wheat beer, a little sour, tangy, with hints of fruitbowl, refreshing when cool, but – and this is the clincher for a picnic beer – with a collection of flavours that suggest it will still taste good when it’s warmed up over an English summer afternoon. Give the picnic prize to the Cow.SONY DSC

You’ll not, I’m guessing, be surprised to hear that the official judges didn’t agree with me at all. The gold medal went to Adnams’ Ghost Ship, the silver to Thwaites’s 13 Guns, the two experienced canners taking the top prizes, while the bronze was snatched by Arbor with its Breakfast Stout.

Still, it confirmed that craft beer does indeed belong in cans. And cans, as the Can Makers will declare, do have advantages over bottles: the beer inside a can is far less likely to be affected by beer’s big enemies, oxygen and light, which ruin far too many bottled brews, while cans are also lighter than glass – ten or eleven times lighter, in fact – and cool down faster in the fridge. So are we likely to see more British craft brewers speedily follow BrewDog (who began canning in 2011), Beavertown, Camden and Fourpure of Bermondsey?

Well, not if Rob Lovatt, brewmaster at Thornbridge, is correct. In a blogpost this week that is essential reading, Rob points out that the sort of small canning line that is all most craft brewers in the UK are likely to be able to afford is not going to be able to guarantee the benefits that canning beer is supposed to bring:

Although the can format is being sold as the best way to eliminate oxygen from the beer after packaging, it is during the packaging process itself that the greatest danger lies. I am unconvinced that the canners towards the lower end of the market are capable of sealing the can without potentially picking up detrimental levels of dissolved oxygen.
It would seem that it is possible to produce good beer on a budget canner, but personally I’m not convinced. Although I am sure we could achieve extra sales and the exposure would be great having beer in can, I feel that on the flip side of the coin, customers drinking oxidised beer from a can would do no favours for our reputation.

So there we are. Today’s craft brewery canned beer is not your father’s canned beer, but it’s not necessarily the answer to a beer drinker’s prayers.

An advertisement from 1958 for canned beer

An advertisement from 1958 for canned beer

19 thoughts on “It’s not your father’s beer can – but is it yours?

  1. The economics are compelling for breweries, as well. I visited DC Brau in Washington DC last year. They told me that when they bought 100,000+ cans (can’t remember the exact quantity), they cost less per can than labels alone for bottles. Of course, the empty cans take up a lot of space, but they had it. The beer was fine, but I didn’t give it time to deteriorate if there had been latent oxidation.

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  2. Hi Martyn.

    Not sure you got the chronology correct about the “production” of the first canned beer. While it is true that the Krueger Brewing Company first sold (!) beer in cans in 1935, it is probably not true that “… a European brewery … first produced (!) canned beer, in 1933, in Lorraine, France (the Americans only followed two years later) …”

    The following website appears to have the correct facts, which would suggest that Krueger was the first to “produce” canned beer in 1933: http://www.greenmon.com/first_beer_cans.htm

    Here is the pertinent quote from that site: “The technology for canning beer existed long before it actually occurred. Some evidence of experimentation dates back to the late 1910’s. Prohibition (1919-1933) put those efforts on hold. Once Prohibition for beer was repealed in April of 1933, American Can Company renewed its efforts to entice brewers to can their product. The first fish to take the bait was not the biggest. In fact it was a moderately sized brewer in Newark, New Jersey, the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company. The first known production run was in late 1933. The trial run is believed to have been 2000 cans. The cans were never sold. The design was very similar to later Krueger cans but is distinguished by different wording on the can. The trial cans were labeled “Krueger’s Special Beer”. Later can designs changed to Krueger’s Finest Beer and later, Krueger Finest Beer. The big moment arrived after a favorable initial test. G. Krueger Brewing must have felt it was a huge gamble to be first out with canned beer. It was too big a gamble to release the product in their regional market. Instead, a test market in Richmond, Virginia was established. On January 24, 1935, canned beer went on sale. Two brands were sold, Krueger’s Finest Beer and Krueger’s Cream Ale.”

    Now it would be interesting to know in which month in 1933 Vezelise produced its first canned beer. Perhaps the French beat the American by a few months? At any rate, even if you consider “produced” and “sold” as synonymous, the Americans did not follow two years later.

    Though you might enjoy this little factoid.

    Cheers.

    Horst Dornbusch

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  3. Have you ever come across anything noting the British government contracting with breweries to can beer during WWII for military distribution only? In the U.S. canning was halted early in the war. The metal, obviously, being diverted towards the war effort. However, in 1943 the War Department contracted with 40 breweries across the country to produce beer (in olive drab cans, no less) which was then distributed to theaters of operations overseas as a morale booster. The beer was sent to places that had high concentration of GIs from those areas where the beer was made. For example Beverwyck, an Albany, NY brewery, had much of its beer sent to the PTO because the 27th Infantry Division—which was comprised of many New Yorkers, having originally been a New York National Guard unit, federalized in 1940—was on Hawaii and later fought in the Central Pacific campaigns.

    I’m curious if that happened in the U.K. as well?

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  4. There are some other contenders for being the first. The Mew Langton Brewery in the Isle of Wight were using screw capped tins (similar to the old Brasso tins) ‘just after the First World War’. The claim is that they were the first. In 2001 Philip Lewis of the Felinfoel Brewery of Llanelli responded to a question and answer session in the Daily Mail. He wrote “In 1931 Can Co anticipating the end of prohibition in the US and with the depression affecting its conventional markets tried again (a 1909 trial failed). Can Co persuaded the small Gottfried Krueger Brewery of Newark, New Jersey, to try the process. A test run of 2,000 cans was produced in 1933 and these sampled by regular Krueger drinkers. The results were positive : 91% liked the canned drink. Then in January 1935 two brands, Krueger’s Finest Beer and Cream Ale went on sale in Richmond, Virginia”.

    So perhaps 1909 is the earliest date.

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  5. Martyn, I believe your line “the one non-craft beer canning state is West Virginia” should actually read “the one non craft-beer canning state is West Virginia”. Unless you mean to say that West Virginia is the only state which cans non-craft beer. Love the article.

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  6. One of the vaguely amusing things about the popularity in the UK in the craft beer world of cans is that in an effort to copy anything that’s going on in the USA, they don’t really know the reason for the upsurge in canned craft beer.
    On the West Coast, where canned craft beer is at its most popular, so is getting out into the wilderness hiking, camping, fishing, and kayaking. A few years ago we all took some inferior beers in cans out on the trail due to their durability and light weight. Beers to accompany days out are part of the enjoyment and a great reward at the end of the day (or end of the morning at lunch!) Happily now there is a plethora of tasty options! Now back in London and hearing an incessant buzz about canned craft beer, I can’t help wondering if the idea of exercise and love of the great outdoors is realised as one of the impetuses behind this trend, and can we expect the humble can to launch a thousand fishing and kayaking trips in the UK? one suspects not…..

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  7. Martyn, the issue of pasteurization is vital when discussing canning. There are three ways you can fill cans:

    1) Unfiltered or roughly filtered, e.g., Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
    2) Filtered and unpasteurized.
    3) Pasteurized (most of this will be filtered but I’d think, say, Blue Moon or Shock Top, is not, yet is left turbid).

    In my experience, any pasteurized product tends to be less impactful on the palate, asll things equal. Most craft canned beer is unpasteurized. The only real downside I can see to any canned beer is that thin metal conducts heat much faster than glass (and chill, in the converse case).

    However, when the cans are quickly consumed, this factor becomes virtually unimportant in my experience. The same for the oxidation concern. All beer drinkers are advised to learn how to read best-by and other canning/bottling codes as the surest sign to getting a stable product.

    Gary

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  8. Hello Martyn,

    interesting story. Though, without a proof like a dated newpaper article the 1933 Vezelise can will remain a rumour. The very first can coming from France is unlikely due to the fact that all known European can makers of that time used US licensed technology. And besides, why should someone claim to have “the first can in France” (“la premiere en France…”) when they are second to none?

    So please, if you have any extra knowledge, please share it with us.
    Thank you,
    Bernd

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    • The ad up there is taken from a book issued by a French brewing museum. Why would they lie? And I fail to see the relevance of “all known European can makers of that time used US licensed technology” – so what?

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      • Didn’t say your source is lying. But it may be an error, 1938 mistaken for 1933 or whatever. The fact that US techology was used for can making does not prove anything. It is just a clue. As Kronenbourg, who claim the first French can for themselves too.
        Anyway, I wish the can is real (the ad shows a drawing) and the date too. Hope to find some proof. And thanks for showing us this ad.

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  9. All 50 states are now covered: West Virginia’s Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company has had two brands canned by River City Cannery.

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