13 Jun 2011 @ 11:13 AM 

You know, I’ve been struggling with this for a while. Do I like cans or don’t I? I keep hearing so much about how good cans are for craft beer, and from a theory standpoint I totally agree. There’s no light, there’s no oxygen egress – they’re basically just little kegs for your beer. How can you go wrong? At the same time, a significant number of the canned beers I’ve had have either been oxidized or unintentionally sour – and these from breweries that I have a great respect for outside of that can. If cans are so much better for craft, how can good breweries be making bad beer?

I’ve written about cans before and in general have felt very favorably about them, but time – and dumping more bought beer than I’d care to – has changed my thoughts on the matter. So now I present to you the reasons why I don’t like cans and why you probably won’t see a canning line in my brewery for a while.

1) I’m not convinced that craft canning lines have less oxygen. Not to say that some don’t – but a lot of craft canning lines are going to look a lot like this one:

Note: Nothing against Caldera Brewing Company – they probably make fine beer, I’ve never had it – but their canning line is an excellent example of what I’m skeptical about. And the video IS three years old, so maybe I’m just looking at old technology, but considering some people are using bottling lines that are older than I am I suspect that there’s not a ton of upgrades across the industry.

Here’s what I’m interested in – the point between 0:13 and 0:54 – between when the cans are being purged by CO2, filled, and the lid is applied. Let me describe in words what I’m seeing here. This line fills 5 cans at a time. As the cans move down the line, they are purged with CO2 – which is what those first 5 fillers are doing when they dip into the can. Purging with CO2 is basically just pushing a shot of carbon dioxide into the can on the theory that since CO2 is heavier than air, and that you’re pushing from the bottom, that CO2 will somehow completely displace the oxygen in the vessel. The cans are then moved down the line to the second set of fillers which fills the cans with beer, and does what is known as “fobbing.” FOB, by the way, stands for Foam on Beer. The theory on fobbing is that if there is foam over the top of the beer that you are somehow not allowing oxygen to contact the beer itself. (Never mind that oxygen is in contact with the foam which has a much larger surface area than the beer and that foam has had much of its CO2 released already removing much of whatever protective barrier that gas might create.) The fillers are removed from the cans and that foam is pulled back into the can whilst the filler drips beer through the open air back down into the can itself. Finally, a lid is kind of slapped on from a roller trapping in all that oxygeny goodness.

Sure, you may not get much oxygen into the can AFTER it’s sealed, but before it’s sealed you’re pretty much just slopping it in there, at least on this type of line. What’s more? Most craft breweries don’t pasteurize, which means that the shelf life on these beers is starting to get perilously low. If you get ’em cold and fresh? They’re probably awesome. But throw them in a warehouse, in the back of a hot truck bouncing down the road, and on an unrefrigerated end cap display in a grocery store somewhere, and I bet your shelf life is down to something like 2 weeks before you start getting stale or sour flavors in there.

Necessary caveats: I know not every canning line is like this, and I know the process is going to differ brewery to brewery and that’s going to make a hell of a difference. I’m using this as my “probably industry average” example. Why? Because canning lines are expensive and sometimes you buy the less expensive equipment so that you can get something in place faster. Sometimes you get the less ideal equipment because you’re getting a deal on it. Because nobody’s going to buy the top shelf option every time. Because I know that for every person in the industry that is fanatical about making sure that everything is perfect, there is another person out there in the industry who is kinda lazy about the way they’re getting part of their process done. After all, this is all somebody’s job. When was the last time that you went through your work day and never cut a corner on anything? Sometimes, all you want to do is go home at 4:30 so that you can get to the beach, or pick your kids up from school, or whatever, and a little extra oxygen pickup be damned.

Final word – there’s probably a good case to say that once beer is in the can it’s a great packaging material, but process and equipment are too inconsistent at a craft level for me to believe that it is true in every case.

2) Cans lack elegance. This is a small re-hash of one of the articles that I’ve written previously about cans. No matter how pretty your art is, when somebody is out on a romantic date at a nice restaurant, they’re not going to be getting canned beer. They’re probably not even going to see an option for it, because I suspect most nice restaurants – the places that really should be about getting good beer to go with good food – will most likely not buy cans unless they’re there for a novelty. I think it’s a long way in the future before a can sits next to a wine bottle at a white-linen type restaurant.

Cans are good for the beach. They’re good for public parks. They’re good for hiking. Otherwise, they’re no different than bottles. Are those three markets really going to take a brewery to the next level? I have my doubts.

3) Cans are BMC territory, and they can out-can us. Like it or not, craft beer as a market segment poses more and more of a threat to the likes of ABI and MillerCoors, and if there’s something I know about those guys, they’ve got cans down pat. They don’t have extra oxygen pickup in their cans – you know why? Because they can in an oxygenless environment, because they can afford one. As craft becomes more of a threat to the big guys, it becomes more and more likely that they’re going to enter a craft-like offering into the market. The more we emulate them in our packaging options, the more options we give them to be able to take market share back from us.

Doubt me? Consider that Blue Moon as a single brand outsells most of the craft breweries in the country. You can get Blue Moon in a can, now, too.

4) I am turned off by blind faith and hype. In high school I used to get in trouble for not taking whatever my teachers told me as fact. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was going through entrepreneur training.

I cannot wrap my head around blindly believing what people tell me without seeing evidence for it myself (especially if those people are trying to sell me something) – and I say this as a person who is fairly trusting in nature. What’s even worse is when I see large groups of people automatically believing something that I see as probably a sales pitch – that’s when my knee-jerk reaction to disagree sets in, and that’s where I am with cans.

I have not, thus far, been presented with data that suggests that cans are nearly as awesome for craft beer as I see publicized, primarily because – as I stated earlier – process and equipment are too inconsistent right now. So why does that put me in the “no cans” camp? Because from the outside of the package, I can’t tell what’s inside. That means I won’t touch any of them. I have had too many cans from breweries that I trust – and you trust – that have been obviously spoiled in a way that I think they would consider unacceptable.

My trust for the can marketplace has been broken, and it will take some serious science to bring me back around.

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Categories: distribution, industry, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 13 Jun 2011 @ 11 18 AM

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