Tuesday 30 May 2017

The rise and rise of canned craft

"Why is everything in cans these days?" mused my friend Richard, examining his tin of Five Points Pils. "Funny you should ask that," I replied, "I'm in the process of writing an article about it, as a follow-up to one I wrote for an engineering magazine a couple of years ago..."

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
Putting a label on the problem
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
Fast-forward two years and beer cans have become high art – a smooth canvas for the artist and designer, and a signifier of craft, not cheap supermarket booze. And a lot of that is because the labelling problems have been licked, meaning you can now use your micro-canning line as it was intended: to put a single brew into just a few thousand cans, even when that brew is a one-off.

Well, mostly licked. I spoke to Metalman co-founder GrĂ¡inne 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
Like me, she has an engineering background so she understands the issues and the complications: “Labelling cans before filling would be best, but that would break the integrity of the [manufacturer’s sterile] seal on the can,” she says. “So we label afterwards – but that means we have to dry them first.”

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
The thing is, not only is micro-canning gear cheap enough for even a small to middling brewery to be able to afford its own canning line, you don’t even have to buy it – it’s so compact that there are companies that have portable micro-canning lines. You get your beer ready, in a specified capacity and condition, they turn up with a truck or large van containing the equipment and a stack of empties, and some hours later they leave you with pallets full of sealed cans.

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.

And the cans themselves are evolving. As well as the crowlers, there’s now rip-top types where the whole lid comes away to leave you a metal drinking cup. Can’t say I like the idea – I've tried two, and find you lose both the look of the beer and much of the aroma, and those are important parts of the drinking experience.

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...