The 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 (www.microbrewr.com) 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.
So 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