Back then, micro-canning was something of a technical novelty, which is why I wrote about it for an engineering readership. A Canadian company, the slightly confusingly named Cask Brewing Systems, had realised that conventional drinks canning machines, which were giant multi-million dollar investments flooded internally with carbon dioxide to keep out harmful oxygen, could be significantly simplified and also reduced in size. In fact, they made them so small and simple that hobby brewers could use one at the homebrew club to can their own beer, one can at a time – a concept that's re-emerged recently as the crowler, a non-reusable version of the growler take-away beer flask that's actually a large can.
Avant-garde US breweries had loved the slightly subversive idea of a mini-canning machine for craft beer, and the first few UK brewers were following suit. There were sceptics, of course – often classically-trained brewers who couldn’t believe a machine that simple could avoid oxidising their beer. However, my own background in engineering told me that what the machine makers were saying made sense.
|Printed can – smooth edges, and
you can often see the ink spread
The big challenge at that point was labelling. The ideal is a printed can, which is what the supermarkets, soft drinks companies and bigger breweries use, but these require a long print run to justify the cost of setting up the printing machine. The last I heard, the minimum print run was 100,000 cans, and to get the best price you needed to order half a million of a given design!
People were experimenting with alternatives such as sticky labels, but unlike glass bottles, empty cans have very little structural strength, so rolling a label on risks denting or even crushing them. Some had even tried printing directly onto the cans using inkjet-type printers, but in the main they were focused on canning those beers that could justify buying 100,000 printed cans.
|Sticky label, overlapped
Well, mostly licked. I spoke to Metalman co-founder Gráinne Walsh at the Irish Embassy’s craft event earlier this year – when I interviewed for that 2015 story, they canned one beer regularly, now it’s four, all in printed cans. On top of that, they can several of their seasonal beers, all using sticky labels on plain cans.
|Bottle-type sticky label
So there’s swings and roundabouts, but sticky labels definitely seem the most popular method. I’ve spotted at least two types so far – sheet plastic ones that wrap all the way round, and ones that look more like plasticised paper and wrap with a gap, like on most bottles. Both are fairly easy to spot, though some of the plastic wrap-arounds feel like printing if you’re not thinking about it.
|Shrink wrap – spot the edge
on the bottom collar
There is a second popular method though, which is essentially to shrink-wrap the can with a printed plastic label. This feels great and can be quite hard to spot at first, as it’s so smooth and it lacks the tell-tale label edges. Once you look though, you’ll almost always feel the edge of the wrap on the collars of the can.
I have also come across cans that I think were spray-printed, perhaps even after filling, but of course I couldn’t find one when collecting samples for this! The ones I saw felt slightly rough, as if they’d been spray-painted with a fast-drying enamel. I’ll keep looking…
I said above that the big problem for micro-canning two or three years ago was labelling – well, it was, but it wasn’t the only one. The other was overcoming an initial impression that it was ‘cheap and cheerful’ and lacked quality – that yes it was canning, but it wasn’t real canning.
|Crowler demo at
Craft Beer Rising
Climbing the learning curve
Of course, with anything like this there’s a learning curve, both for the canners and for the brewers they work with. So while the UK’s mobile canners do a great job today, brewers tell me that wasn’t always the case when they started up. I heard reports three years ago of lagers with oxidation problems and a stout where one can in three was infected, for example. Reading between the lines though, I suspect the brewers involved were as responsible as the canners, mainly because they didn’t (yet) know how to present their beer properly.
However, while those quality worries are no longer valid, some of the suspicion of low-tech canning remains – and that, combined with the subversive popularity of canned craft beer, has brought the big boys in. Just like the macrobrewers starting up or buying craft beer brands, the big machinery companies based in Germany, Italy and yes, China, who supplied those multi-million dollar canning lines are now targeting smaller-scale customers. As they bring out cheaper and smaller versions of their high-tech canneries, the micro-canners are pushing upmarket with lines that are faster and much more sophisticated than their original semi-manual lines.
But it all says – as did my visit to a Morrisons supermarket today, with craft beer cans from all over – that canned craft is not only here to stay, but is increasingly the norm.
Sorry it's been a while, but I've been rather busy! Hopefully this makes up for it a bit...