The Session #98: Cans or bottles?

the session beer blogging fridayThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is by Nathan Pierce at Micro Brewr ( on the topic of cans or bottles. He asks effectively, which are better? And he wants to understand different perspectives – a brewer; a distributor, a consumer?

I’d been meaning to write a post on small cans for a while and as fate would have it, it’s been like buses, three at once. But for anyone with even a passing interest in beer, you can’t have failed to notice small cans’ accelerating emergence as a form of beer packaging. And we are talking small cans here – that’s an important distinction. I can’t speak for other markets, but in these islands, whilst 330ml cans are the largest can size by volume sold, the market for them is all in soft drinks. For beer, it’s 440ml, 500ml, or the full pint, 568ml (a piece of Frankenstein packaging if ever I saw one). Essentially, consumers are totally accepting and happy with the 330ml can as a ‘format’, but reject it when it is used outside of the context they understand it in – in other words, for beer. It is, as is so often the case when trying to elicit consumers’ views on things, highly irrational.

Because, let’s be honest – and no insult is intended here to Nathan who set this month’s Session topic – this whole question is deeply irrational. I mean choosing a can over a bottle? It’s a can. A metal thing. Extruded. Everyday. Extremely dull. Let’s get over it shall we?

But that would be to ignore the strange and often unfathomable way we work as consumers, as drinkers, as humans. We say rational. We do irrational.

The evidence? In a few years, the perception of beer in cans has affected – or at least started to affect – a complete about-face. Just 5 or 6 years ago, cans were persona non grata when it came to craft packaging. More than that, even for the big brewer brands, cans were the rather scruffy and probably illegitimate cousin of the ‘proper’ forms of beer packaging, of draught (draft) and bottled. One turns ones nose up at cans. Stella Artois as an example, sells huge quantities of cans – 30% of its mix – but you’re unlikely to see cans feature on their posters. Carling – the UK’s biggest beer brand – as good as has no bottles. Projects to launch one in the range had names like ‘Icon’ or ‘Hero’… a classic case of putting bottles on a pedestal, even though, in this case, it’s would create a very stunted tail, attempting to wag a chunkily obese dog. I mean, why bother? What’s the fuss about? Oh, hang on, consumers prefer bottles, don’t they? Don’t they?

Well let’s attempt to answer that by putting ourselves in the shoes of a consumer. And by doing that, surely, surely, it’s confirmed as a silly debate. Surely, any packaging is just a way of stopping the beer falling out?  

If it only it were that simple. And if only it were down to consumers. Of course the views of ‘opinion formers’ matter. Funny that, because here we’re talking about people who own or operate small brewers are now impacting drinkers behaviour and perceptions. Who were, until recently consumers, not brewery owners, and you can bet your hind legs they rejected cans! Whether that’s true or not isn’t the point though, what’s good now is that cans are being considered again by the serious cognoscenti. How opinions alter when the winds of change shift.

Roosters cans_fotorSo first I’m going to attempt to be rational. I like cans. They have clean lines, feel good in the hand and chill quickly. They make that pleasing ‘pffft’ when you nip the tab back, and I even like the sound as the metal rips round. I’m amazed that can makers can make metal so thin yet the whole thing is so sturdy when full. Cans pour well too, particularly with those wide mouth ends, although sometimes I’d like to see an old rip off can end again – you know the sort we used to collect for Blue Peter. And there are some pleasing new matt varnishes, which are delightfully tactile. Yes, I’m a self-admitted can stroker*. And there are some great graphic applications and designs coming through which I wrote about recently. But ultimately, it’s a can. And look, I seem to have strayed into being irrational. Tricky, isn’t it?

And there are downsides to cans too. I mean all the educated opinion formers say they chill down quickly. They warm up quickly too. There are some questions about the food grade lining on the can insides. And you know, there are occasions with steel cans in particular that I can taste tin. Really, it’s not my perceptions. It’s there.

But here’s the thing. I like bottles too. They have a refined elegance which a dumpy can just can’t carry off. It’s like Yasmin Le Bon married to Danny de Vito. Bottles have interesting labels, ideally thick gauge paper for me, and sometimes that lovely textured foil around the neck. I like sliding my nail between the foil and the crown and teasing it away. And they chill down and warm up nice and slowly. People blab on about sun struck quality but all the reliable research that I’ve seen (and commissioned in my time) suggests – sadly perhaps – that most UK beer consumers not only can’t recognise the lightstrike character but in almost 50% of cases prefer it! Heresy, I know, but then again, there are occasions when I like a bottle of Corona.

I guess what I’m saying is, well two things. First, we can debate this as much as we want but it’s all a bit crackers, a bit pointless. Why beer drinkers like things is not going to be down to chilling times, or lightstrike resistance, or environmental impact – it’s just not. It’s down to whether “I like it” – or more to the point – whether “I’ll be called a dick by my mates if I’m seen drinking it / from it”.   And second, it’s horses for courses. If beer drinkers become accepting of both, then that’s good for beer isn’t it?

Perhaps not…. here’s a parting thought. The big brewers seem very excited about craft brands moving into small cans. Why would that be? Why are they excited to see craft brewers investing in canning lines or finding innovative solutions to canning – sharing facilities, mobile filling lines and so on?   It’s simple. Bottling is a more imprecise practise – it’s like a tough rally car, high performance but can still keep going with a bit of dinking and wear and tear. Canning on the other hand is like a F1 car. There’s no way, no way on this earth, that craft brewers will be able to do it anywhere near as effectively, efficiently, cleanly (some would argue), nor – most importantly – cheaply as the big boys. Visit a canning line of an ABI or Carlsberg. They run at thousands of cans filled per minute. Per minute. And the craft brewers want to take their exciting brands, their interesting beer styles – which the Big Boys struggle to create – and put them into small cans – a format the Big Boys have failed to make credible. Whilst the craft brewers are spending their marketing Pounds or Dollars in bringing drinkers into cans the Big Boys are licking their lips.

*I shall soon write a horror novel, entitled, “Can Stroker’s Dracula”

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

Small beers

There’s a ‘born again’ zeal of enthusiasm about cans amongst the craft beer fraternity; it’s intriguing and amusing. For years, brands of beer that put their product in cans were deemed in some way cheap or sold out. There was a lingering perception of ‘tinniness’ but also associations of ‘13½ Free!’ or ‘500ml extra value’ or even the faintly ridiculous pint cans that you still see in the UK, which seem to be tottering along on super high heels, just waiting to ‘do a Naomi Campbell’.   It’s been a source of frustration for can makers for years and their industry body, which is imaginatively titled the ‘Can Makers’. Because, cutting through any of their potential bias, cans really have been a brilliant beer package for donkey’s years. They are incredibly light to transport (filled and unfilled); rugged, despite the incredible thinness of the can walls; efficient conductors of heat so they chill down quickly. And they are also flavour fast: the cans are lined with a food grade film which prevents any contact with the steel or aluminium walls and of course, no light is going to sneak through, eliminating the threat of light strike.

So it must be down to the craft brewers. They have stepped in and reversed the decline in cans’  perception, because otherwise, nothing is different.

Except, no. There are a few differences this time round. And it’s the craft brewers who have seized them.

Camden Hells: great design, right size. It all feels, well, right.
Camden Hells: great design, right size. It all feels, well…. just right.

The first is size. The craft brewers have embraced small cans – better, for the often more challenging styles of beer they’re brewing, but also, just a more enjoyable portion. 330mls are hand sized and the volume fits in a wider range of glassware; they’re less likely to warm up as you drink too (it’s gone). Truly, it’s always baffled me why UK beer consumers simply wouldn’t accept a can size in beer that is totally acceptable to them in soft drinks and totally accepted when they travel abroad. Different beer in a different pack – that seems to have done it.

The second is finish. The craft brewers are embracing the material and its potential in a way that few of the more established players have done or are attempting now. More often than not, a brand’s design is simply ‘applied’ to the can and disharmony is the result (I know, been responsible for a couple myself). Where the design joins – tricky; the way the logo works with the curved face – a challenge. Brand owners and design agencies have broadly given up, resulting in something…  just not right. But some of the craft brewers have said: how can we use the shape of the can to enhance our brand? To take it on and improve it? Beavertown is the notable example here: their cans are art, quite literally. There are no issues with worrying about facing them forward, as they can be faced anyhow and make a panoramic comic book shot working along the shelf. Magic.

And there’s feel too: varnishes and textured finished have been around for a few years, but it’s taken the craft brewers to use them to their potential. Why? Because they’re not scrimping for savings, worried about the added ‘on cost’. The value built into their inherent proposition allows them to buy slightly more expensive cans and reap the reward. Look out for stippled matt finishes and spot varnish. Little touches yes, but in the hand, they transform how the can feels and even – gasp – make you think about drinking from it.

Can design mastery from Beavertown. Wonderful stuff.

But one issue is overlooked. Unlike bottling, canning your beer is a more serious financial proposition. Can lines aren’t cheap – and they’re certainly more expensive than bottling lines. They’re also a bugger to run – the tolerances compared with bottling are much tighter – think Formula 1 car vs rally car. Both high performance, but one takes it to another level.

And then there’s the cans. This isn’t like buying a run of labels for bottles: there’s no writing them off by popping the old labels down to the local recycling tip. Buying a run of cans is a major undertaking and if you buy them, by god, you use them.   And finally, there’s a structural question. Whilst bottling lines are – broadly speaking – ten a penny, canning lines are something else. There are fewer of them; they’re largely fully employed and also, and this is a big issue if you brew 10 barrels a week, massive. There are whole canning lines dedicated to Coke. Not Coca-Cola’s range of products, just Coke. 24 hours a day. All year. Picture it: “’Scuse me mate, can we fit in a run of 8 Ball Rye next Tuesday?” “Er…. no”. So what’s happened? Well, the incredible thing is that some of the brewers have taken on the challenge and have bought canning lines. That takes big balls. Big balls of lead. But there’s beautiful commercial creativity too: there are operators now running mobile canning lines. They come to you. Fill. Clean down. Offski. That is brilliant.

And the even better news is that it’s just begun. Tinted was responsible for bringing thermochromic – temperature sensitive – ink onto cans 10 or so years ago. But 5 years from now, that is going to look – aptly you may feel – like very small beer.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015