Readers cannot have failed to notice the plethora of canned beers on the shelves of supermarkets and specialist beer shops. Once upon a time the bottle was the premium package and promoted as such by the brewers; cans were stacked high in piles of 24 can slabs and were well discounted before Christmas and footballing competitions.
You could not buy just one can, the minimum was four, perhaps six and then anything up to 24 or even two layers of 15 in a well decorated box making 30. Going several better, the Americans have tried a tub of 77 Natural Lights which doubles as an ice cooler, Austin Beerworks assembled a seven foot long 82 pound pack of 99 but it was a bit unwieldy and the Finns at Nokian Panimo trumped them all with a whole pallet wrapped in board containing 1080 500mL cans which would set you back €2149.20!
Beyond the big boys, who could afford to invest in fast lines filling over 2000 cans a minute to keep costs down in order to allow the discounting, the smaller brewer gradually moved into hand filled bottle stations and on to manually fed rotary fillers to allow sales in the off trade. The first smaller brewer to fill cans in the States was Oskar Blues in 2002 but it took the Aussies at Camden Town in London to try it in the UK, that was back in 2013 to be followed by Beavertown and Fourpure a year later. Interestingly all three of these London pioneers have attracted investment by the big boys, A-B InBev, Heineken and Lion from Australia respectively. The entry level can lines come from a Canadian company perversely named Cask Inc and the basic models fill five cans in a line at some 35 per minute.
If you do not want even that level of investment, there are contract packagers like West Berkshire which boasts they can split a batch into bottle, can, cask and keg! For cans they have a 200 per minute line from CFT in Italy and operate a 30hL minimum batch size. The labeller on the line can also add a wraparound label to the can which addresses another earlier problem in that cans are drawn from metal discs and then decorated at the factory so that order sizes were necessarily large and you had to find somewhere to store the cans you had not yet filled. Digital printing has reduced batch sizes but not small enough for the brewer wanting to test the market. Some say the labelled cans look like baked beans but if the designer is good and a pressure sensitive ‘no look’ label is employed with the base can colour showing through, results can be very pleasing. Tactile finishes and embossed lettering can also enhance shelf pull as indeed they can on bottle labels. It is also possible to buy preprinted film sleeves which are heat shrunk on to the bare cans as production demands. The colour range is also superior to the offset litho of the can makers. Cans need drying after filling and the roll fed film is cut and dropped over the can before it enters a heated tunnel. Mobile can fillers are popular in the States going from brewery to brewery where a large trailer holding the line parks in the yard and is coupled up to the bright beer tank via a hose.
So the smaller producer now has the tools to go canning but that does not really explain why so many of them are rushing into the market. What are the relative merits of the bottle and the can for both consumer and brewer? Cans are made of aluminium or steel and are lacquered inside to prevent metallic taints. The first UK cans date from 1936 and some were lined with pitch! Glass of course is totally inert. Both cans and bottles are one trip. In the UK, there is only one brewery still filling returnable bottles although there is a consortium in Oregon about to reintroduce them but the bottles have to be hauled to Montana for washing! One all.
The metal is recyclable as is the glass of the bottle. Two all. The can seam, where the lid is securely fixed will not let in oxygen but then the crown cap sealing a bottle can be treated with an oxygen scavenging seal for longer shelf life products. Three all.
Oxygen will stale packaged beer as will sunlight. The can keeps the light out as does brown glass, green glass lets some through and clear or flint bottles will not keep the damaging UV light out at all. The light produces skunky flavours, try taking a sip of your lager inside the pub on a summer’s day then go into the garden and have another one – it is an amazingly rapid reaction as the UV light chops off the end of hop bitterness molecules and rearranges them into 3-methylbut-2-ene1-thiol, remember that if you want to win a pub quiz. Brewers who insist on using green or flint bottles are able to bitter their beers with modified hop compounds. Four three to the can. Cans are lighter, the lightest 330mL bottle weighs some 150g while the same sized can is 15g which saves distribution fuel. Cans stack more easily on trailers as well as in the fridge. A can would typically cost just 70% that of an equivalent bottle. Five three to the can.
Glass is not allowed at many outdoor events and you do not need to remember the bottle opener; six three to the can. The can may be cooled quickly for drinking but it also warms up more rapidly. Bottles can smash but cans get punctured; another draw so seven four to the can.
We have already hinted at the 100% coverage of the can for graphics and on a crowded shelf catching the consumer’s eye is important. That’s eight four.
In the brewery, long shelf life beers in can need to be pasteurised as the seaming process with the wide necked can cannot be 100% sterile; bottles can be sterile filled without the energy intensive heat treatment in a pasteuriser which takes up a lot of space. Although an inert gas blanket is applied above the cans before the end is seamed on, there is still a risk of oxygen ingress. A typical total in pack oxygen figure for a can would be half as much again as a bottle so care must be taken to keep oxygen levels low pre-packaging. Eight five to the can.
There are naturally conditioned beers in can and if you want to pour a bright beer it is difficult to see the sediment starting to enter your glass, that is eight six to the can. Bottle embossing can be very positive in convincing the customer to buy so eight seven to the can. If you do a promotion involving proof of purchase, it is easy to post a bottle crown but a can is more tedious unless the tab is coded in some way and they are tricky to prise off…..eight all!! The decision is yours.
Consumers do have a preconceived preference perhaps a third for bottle, a third for can and the rest are not bothered either way but in blind tastings they cannot tell any difference according to a study carried out by the University of Edinburgh. Perhaps they should try the best of both worlds and that is the aluminium bottle. But that is another story.