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.

Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 13 Jun 2011 @ 11:18 AM



Responses to this post » (25 Total)

  1. Greg says:

    These are good thoughts and a nice breakdown, Erik, and I think you’ve made a strong case.

    I’m interested to see if there are any responses by brewers familiar with canning lines that can defend them. I feel like there has to be a middle ground where some can use is helpful and advantageous for craft breweries, but you may be right in that breweries are using it well beyond its limitations right now.

  2. Mike G says:

    I’ve also been dissapointed in a couple canned beers. The only brewery I’ve had consistant success with is Oskar Blues. Point 3 can’t be stressed enough and is one a lot of craft breweries don’t get and/or think about. A bit of push back on point 2 – is the fine dining arena really the profit driver for craft beer? Is it any bigger than the markets you listed for cans? I’d argue the casual atmosphere (where cans are accepted and larger than just where glass is prohibited) is a far bigger market.

  3. meg says:

    I like cans. If there are two beers I’m considering buying at similar price points, and one comes in cans and one comes in bottles, I will buy the cans (I would probably even pay a little more for cans). Easier to carry home or anywhere else, easier to dispose of the empty, less likely to cause bleeding. Also less environmental guilt, though I haven’t done enough research for that to be truly rational on my part.

    There aren’t too many cans I’ll drink, but I’ve never encountered problems with the ones I’ve had – mostly Oskar Blues, 21st Amendment, and DC Brau. Admittedly my palate isn’t all that sensitive.

    On the fine dining – you really want to sell to that level of snobbery? Ok, I know this is a for-profit business, and if that’s what the market says maybe that’s what you have to do, but I hate to give into something like that.

    I really hope there are craft brewers who disagree with you Erik, because I’m disappointed every time I find a new beer I like that only comes in bottles.

  4. erik says:

    Yeah – let me qualify the fine dining point:

    I don’t think it’s the driving market for craft, but I do think it’s an excellent point of market differentiation for craft and is something that the “Big 3” can’t do – or won’t. It’s not snobbery; they DO lack elegance. It’s treating the beverage as a fine versatile option for a larger market than backpackers. There’s nothing that says that my beautiful bottle of beer can’t be on the table of a super nice restaurant AND the neighborhood pub, but I’m pretty sure that a can won’t do both.

    I hear ya, Meg. I want to like them, but I have been SO disappointed in what has come out of them that it’s led me to really look at them a lot more closely and I’m just not sure that the market is where it needs to be to support cans.

    What I’d really like is a decent third option (read: not pouches). Maybe classier PET bottles? I don’t know that you can really beat glass in elegance and cost right now.

    • meg says:

      The elegance argument goes right over my head. I appreciate aesthetically pleasing food presentation, but a bottle vs. a can does nothing for me. I want a pretty tulip glass with it either way.

      • erik says:

        Yeah, because you know that it shouldn’t be served in its packaging.

        My question is – will a nice not-beer-bar restaurant carry cans? I think too many of them associate cans with Bud/Miller/Coors and frat-boy style drinking.

        All things equal, I’d rather sell those people kegs than bottles.

        • Lee says:

          But shouldn’t we want our nice not-beer-bar restaurant to serve a couple of nice drafts that go with their food, rather than serve only bottles and cans? I would hope that as beer becomes more acceptable in nicer restaurants and paired with food that chefs and owners will want to have fresh beer on tap to pair with their current menu. You’re right, I can’t imagine having a can in a nice restaurant, but I also don’t drink out of the bottle their either, so they can always pour it as they serve it.

          Also, I’m interested in the last point you make. Shouldn’t craft beer extend across the gamut of distribution methods in order to compete with the big brewers that already have a lock on cans? That way, even the backpackers, tailgaters, and “picnic”ers have the ability to have craft beer with them. No need to eliminate bottles, but options are nice.

          • erik says:

            Good points all, but let me speak to the last:

            I think that whether or not craft should extend into packaging methods employed by the big guys is a serious question that the industry at large should be addressing. The egalitarian idealist in me says, “Hell, yes! The more craft beer out there the better!” The paranoid business guy in me says, “The more we are like the big brewers, the smaller the road bump we are when they finally decide to shift their business model.”

            I think it’s important to realize that BMC is very capable of making large amounts of really good flavorful beer and blowing the doors off of half the craft market. That they haven’t, yet, is a function of the fact that craft is still such a small part of the market, but it won’t last forever.

            So – the question is – do we get really good at their forms of packaging and distribution in hopes that we can hold our own when the time comes for them to target craft as a segment, or do we differentiate ourselves so that they have a harder time making that transition?

            I don’t have an answer. My gut is to lean toward the latter.

            The other thing to consider is that canning might well be the future of craft beer – but are we there, yet, in terms of quality of canning lines? I mean – canning IS good for beer. It is, without a doubt, the best possible packaging that we can currently put our products in, but if my affordable options for packaging lines mean damaging my product by putting it in there, what am I really gaining by doing it?

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  5. mitchell_pgh says:

    #2 is absolutely spot on. Cans have their place, but they do not convey a sense of “premium, hand crafted beer” which is critically important for smaller breweries.

    I believe that fringe beer enthusiasts, those that are just discovering the advantages of microbreweries, are warming to the idea that great beer may cost a bit more than the InBev alternatives. That said, when you start offering cans, it cheapens the overall experience. While I try not to compare beer to wine, cans are on par with boxed wine.

    Sure, we could argue that boxed wine is actually the superior liquid container… but it just isn’t elegant.

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  6. olllllo says:

    Cans, even the 16 ouncers, do not scream, “Share me!” like a bottle of wine, a bomber or a cage and cork 750ml does.

    White table cloth restaurants are where people experiment and share and are more apt to notice good food pairings. Though these places are not the largest segment of the market, you have to ask yourselves, (if you are old enough to remember) “Would there be a supermarket full of hundreds of different kinds of wine without years and years of restaurants cellaring wines?”

    In your fathers day, there were big bottles of Gallo… that’s really it.

  7. Derrick says:

    I think it’s worth mentioning that virtually all craft beer canned in North America uses equipment manufactured by Cask Brewing Systems, a Canadian company that stumbled into the business. Thus, there is little or no difference between the canning process between North American craft breweries.

    The big exception this year will be Sierra Nevada, which will use a canning equipment built by a European manufacturer. Sierra Nevada has also spent a lot of time developing the best interior lining for their cans, as standard linings absorb hop compounds, distorting their aromatic characteristics. Since Sierra Nevada will release their Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA in cans this year, they didn’t want the cans providing a distinctively different experience than bottles or kegs.

    • Greg says:

      That’s very interesting, Derrick, and something I for one had no idea about.

      I will say that the best craft can beers I’ve had have been the ones like the Lancaster Kolsch: An inexpensive, crisp seasonal that is only found locally and is always fresh.

      As to the earlier “elegance” point… One could absolutely not be a bigger fan of cans than I am when it comes to design, and I think there is the potential there for elegant cans (see Tempt cider in Europe, for example), but as things stand today, we’re just not there. Cans for the moment – when not in beer emporia – fill a largely alfresco drinking niche.

      • erik says:

        Agreed that the potential is there but, just like you say, we’re not there, yet.

        In fact, I think that pretty much sums up how I feel about cans.

        We’re not there, yet.

        Not to say we should stop trying, just to say that we should perhaps be a little less fanatic about them until we are, indeed, there.

  8. Chris says:

    Just thought I’d add this interesting tid-bit to the mix. It looks like New Belgium is all about the cans and is expanding their can line: http://beernews.org/2011/07/new-belgium-brewing-announces-can-line-expansion/

    I personally prefer bottles for a lot of the reasons you mentioned above, so I won’t re-hash them. Just thought I’d share because it does seem like more and more craft breweries are heading in the can direction.

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