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


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 hosted by Ding at Dings Beer Blog ( and his question is this: ‘What’s your role in the beer scene?’ Are you simply a cog in the commercial machine if you work for a brewery, store or distributor? Are you nothing more than an interested consumer? Are you JUST a consumer? Are you a beer evangelist? Are you a wannabe, beer ‘professional’? Are you a beer writer? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above? Where do you fit, and how do you see your own role in the beer landscape?

For twenty years I worked in ‘big beer’. Working my way up from a green-gilled management trainee, selling cases of Lamot Pils in Liverpool or Launceston, Tennent’s Gold Bier in Partick or Pencaitland, to a marketing person launching brands or making their adverts to the heady heights of running innovation or sitting on the Board. My role was clear: and it was commercial. To sell more beer, more profitably. To impact the share price in a positive way. To help the business earn bonus.

HaloBut always there was an itch to scratch, a lack of fit. That business was run by accountants. It thought at one point it listened to consumers, at others that it was customer-centric. But it was neither. It was run for the money, nothing more. That’s fine, but it meant that sometimes, beer was actually a loser. Some brands, remarkable in their longevity were actively run down (‘cannibalised’ is the business term) to grow focus brands, often which had less real potential – except for leveraging the money machine further.   And the itch grew itchier. Before the world of work, at University, my knowledge and passion for beer grew. I was never a homebrewer (it never really crossed my mind to try to be honest, I had no role models who did it) but I was interested in beer, both as a drink in itself and as, without sounding naff, a drink of the people. This was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Jilly Goulden was expectorating about poncey food on the box and all the focus was going on wine. On exclusivity. On snobbery. On one-upmanship. And it wasn’t for me.

So I became interested in beer and travelled and drank widely. I watched ‘The Beer Hunter’ and I bought the books. But I went to beer cultures too: notably Germany and Belgium and saw what reverence for beer really was. It fired me up.

Then two decades in big beer slowly killed it… yet, not quite. The itch is there and today I scratch it; with abandon, without fear of the need of aqueous cream. I can immerse myself in the world of beer again without any guilt, without any feelings of corporate betrayal. And oooooh. It feels good.   Almost three years ago, on the back of a general desire to write, but not yet having the plot for my novel agreed, I decided to write about beer. More than anything for myself, and for the practice of finding my voice. I blog on other things too – but beer is my first love.

So does that give me a ‘role in beer’? Until the question was posed, I had never given it much thought, and truth be told I am not wholly sure. I have spent my working life in business involved in some way with beer, so I bring a commercial and branding angle to beer that is missing from many craft operations. Perhaps that is my role: but no, I am not trying to be a craft brewing consultant*. Perhaps I am a beer writer, after all I write about beer. But no, in the main I loathe beer reviews and am too critical of my own writing to take it too seriously. But what am I is pro beer. I want all brewers to up their game; to realize that brewing good beer is important. That branding your beers well is just as important. That retailing beer in the right way, serving properly, in the right glass, is important. Because that way more and more discerning adults will be pulled back into beer’s sphere of influence. That can only be a good thing, can’t it? I am, in short, a beer zealot.

* although to continue the  ‘Simon Zealots’ / Jesus Christ Superstar theme, to paraphrase,  “You might as well take it, my rates are good”

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

The Session #88: Mickey Mouse

the session beer blogging friday

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 hosted by Boak and Bailey ( and is on the subject of traditional beer mixes. With it a challenge, we should find one traditional mix (no beer cocktails either) and recreate it; even order one in a bar (if you’re man enough)…

Funny how memory betrays you. As I recollect it, The Blue Moon was a large pub tucked underneath a railway bridge, just down from tightly arcing motorway slip road. It was mock half brick; outside mostly put to tarmac; desiccated hanging baskets hung wanly and the landlord had some missing stumpy fingers, a shiny hairless scalp and gold ring earrings. The regulars were gritty, speaking with a pronounced Derbyshire twang. “Noo” for ‘new’; “Naa” for ‘now’; “Ay up” and “mi’duck” being dropped in frequently, revealing the border status between Yorkshire to the north and the industrial midlands below.

In reality, my memory was skewed by time. A photograph taken from then revealed that the pub was actually a Hotel.  There was nothing ‘Blue’ about it, it was just a ‘Moon’ (although had you seen the decor you might disagree).  There was no railway bridge and the slip road was a good quarter of a mile away. The landlord, actually a Manager, and he sported fewer piratical gold rings than my false memory betrayed.  But he, just as like his customers, did speak with that round, fruity, ruddy Derbyshire dialect. And he, just like his customers, drank ‘Mix’.

I was doing a management training programme, and Spondon’s Moon Hotel was my training pub.  Sprawling Spondon, in Derby, is known for its ‘pong’ so expectations were low: was said whiff from off beer or from nearby Courtaulds? Yet, although I was only there for a couple of weeks, I jimmied in months of learning. Learning about pubs; learning about customers; learning about life in a roundabout way.  Basic cellaring skills; tallying up the take at the end of the evening and most fearsome of all, serving behind the bar. Why fearsome? Two reasons: keeping tabs on ferocious Friday night orders for one; two, the terrible mockery inflicted when you didn’t know what the various ‘Mix’ orders were. It was a whole new lexicon: ‘Half & Half’, ‘Black and Tan’, ‘Bass and Gowd’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’.

A Bass & Gowd? The Bass was optional – any decent pale ale would do, but the Gowd wasn’t – referring to Gold Label. A favourite of my father law for whom a pint isn’t really a pint without a good viscous slug of Gold Label in it.  This isn’t about flavour transformation: it’s about pure brawn; beer doping. The parallel with cycling doesn’t stop there.  A decade or so ago such doping was rife. Judging by the orders at The Moon, one in five pints ordered by men over 50 had a gowd with it. Today would anyone? Then there was trial by ordering. Some customers wanted the Gold Label from the fridge; others – very particular others – wanted it from behind the counter. Others, cellar temperature, although they could bog off and get there own.  And do you pour it in or let the customer?  The whole lot into a half pint or serve them a pint and then let them add it gradually?  A blummin’ barley wine minefield, nothing less.

Not the mix for me. Instead, I chose the much more goofily monikered ‘Mickey Mouse’. An old boy in the Moon took delight in catching me out by ordering this, much as I’m sure he had for the proceeding 30 years with other all green round the gills bar staff.  Turns out the Mickey Mouse was a simple mix of lager and ale. At the Moon it was Carling Black Label (the lager being poured first) topped up with an ale, in this case keg Worthington’s. And it was a mix – not a stratification as is popular in the U.S. where there’s a clear horizon between the two products in the glass.  I chose the sweetish Heineken (export) – 5%, with its estery, pear drop aroma and a much more hardcore Goose Island IPA: hoping the upfront hoppy grapefruitiness and lingering bitterness would work OK with the sweeter lager with little finish.

What was I expecting? The best of both worlds perhaps – a less challenging American IPA that was more sessionable? A more rewarding factory lager: still with the structure and finesse of a lager but with more savouring qualities?

IMG_1694I got neither. Rather, the Goose got plucked – somehow not even an IPA-light but a rather muddy ale with the crisp hop notes hidden under a blanket. And neither did I get a lager-to-savour.  Sure, it was arguably not the best pairing.  A more robust lagered beer perhaps: Pilsner Urquell or maybe a Republika or Camden Hells?  Maybe a less assertive Pale Ale would have been better: Sierra Nevada from the U.S. stable (I mean this relatively) or any of many beautiful British pale ales.

Ah, but there’s the rub.  I’m not closed to the idea of mixing beers together, certainly not puritanical about despoiling the purity of an original recipe.  Where I netted out though is that I’d rather go for a genuine beer cocktail, where the flavours of the beer are just one of many interwoven tastes from a wide gamut of ingredients, rather than mixing two ‘traditional’ beers and getting the worst of both or the best of neither. I’ll keep on trying them, but not with a sense of anticipation.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

The Session 85: Why do you drink?

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 Douglas Smiley at Baltimore Bistros and Beer ( on the topic of how we drink. What compels us to drink? How would life be if beer no longer featured?

I don’t come from a family of big drinkers. My parents enjoy an occasional glass of wine; less occasionally they endure their youngest son wittering on about some beer or other, but you wouldn’t have them down as the drinking kind.  My grandparents neither from what I recall: in fact, my maternal grandmother would make a point of warning me off beer when she saw me glugging back pints of water as a child. “Better that than beer” she would say. And so it follows quite logically that I’m not a big drinker myself. Never have been. I’ve never been one for over-indulging on alcohol, or at least, when I have, I’ve never enjoyed it.

So then, why do I drink?

You know, until now, I’ve never thought about it. Never had to. Never been asked. But it’s a damn fine question and should be honoured with a response.

Not a Champagne Supernova

Beer engages the senses. I love opening a beer.  You know how the ‘steam’ rises out when you remove a crown? Puthers, more like; creeps out of the mouth and flops, hissingly, down the side of the bottle. I like that.  Then there’s the pour.  I like two fingers of head on my beer, and the sweep and swirl as the beer rolls into the glass like a cresting breaker smashing on the shore. I like that too.  The settle entrances me. You don’t need nitrogen-flush canned beer to see the settle and stir of the beer as it calms down. It’s like staring at a supernova through a telescope. That’s magic – and no other drink does it for me in the same way.  Beer is more than taste, it’s multi-dimensional.

Beer has a head.  It staggers me that many people complain about the head on the beer (in the UK for sure) – as if the head is added from somewhere else and isn’t part of the drink itself. Anything more than a whisper is too often treated with derision. My view is the opposite.  Beer isn’t beer without a decent head.  It’s not just part of the beer, it’s the crown.  It’s visual appealing of course, but so much more than that, it’s an uplifting moment of joy as you drink through the wafty, creamy bubbles to the liquid below; breathing in the aroma, wiping the false moustache away.

Beer has hops. Hops have grown on me. I remember in my early drinking days preferring malty, biscuity beers more, shying away from those heavily Kent hopped beers more typical in southern England.  But then I drank Directors; Spitfire; Broadside and my education began. Then I went to America and drank new-fangled craft ales. Then I went to Czechoslovakia and tasted the crisp, flowery bouquet of the Saaz hop or to Bavaria where I experienced Hallertau Mittlefrüh. And just the other week, an English Saison with Nelson Sauvin.  How could I live now without the beguiling complexity of the hop cone?

Beer is fascinating.  How did it come about?  Rather like the chicken or the egg, we ponder, ‘What came first, the beer or the bread?’. And beer isn’t just fermented – it can happen spontaneously in a cobweb encrusted lambic loft space, or in a planned way in a pristine lager brewery. Beer can be aged in a wooden cask and enjoy flavours emparted from bacteria or lactic acids, or appley sourness from malic fermentations.  It can be brewed in a farmhouse, a tower or hibernate in the sleep of cold, down in a lagering cellar. Some modern Belgian beer styles go through remuage and dégorgement, like champagne and enjoy a fine mouse and bead of tiny bubbles just the same.  Beer can be brewed from umpteen types of malt and other cereals too – rye, corn grists, emmer, spelt. Those same malts can be smoked to give a taste of salami.  It’s a gift that never stops giving.

But most of all,

Beer is honest. “I think beer is something for ordinary people…for the common man. It’s something that ordinary people can drink moderately. Talk about politics, work…somehow it goes with democracy. People are often hesitant to talk about wine. They worry they might not pronounce it properly or something. But with beer, you don’t worry about that. Beer belongs to everyone. And I like that”.  Fritz Maytag

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

The Session #83: Against The Grain

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 Rebecca Patrick at The Bake and Brew ( on the topic of how much our taste or opinion of a craft beer is affected by what friends and the craft beer community at large thinks.  Do we (a) go with the flow or (b) go against the grain?

The Session ImageThose familiar with Sir Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ books, will no doubt be aware of Ankh-Morpork, the twin city sitting either site of the gently bubbling, foaming and glooping River Ankh which is centre of the Turtle-shouldered universe he has created.  Ankh-Morpork is the city where it’s at:  multi-cultural, industrious, artistic, political, inventive, hosts of the greatest seats of learning and commerce – a melting pot of global influence.  The parallels with a city like London are deliberate.    Both cities are a good place to start in thinking about the trickle-down effect – one theory for how influence is created and spread.

The basic premise of trickle-down is either economic – a wealthy or ‘elite’ group in society adopt a product, service or behaviour which they abandon as ‘the masses’ adopt it – or social – for example the way cycling behaviour is spreading in London, and accelerated by the policies of Boris Johnson which initially at least, flew in the face of the supporting evidence.   But if you build it they will come, and what with Boris Bikes, cycling superhighways, Cycle To Work schemes and inventive manufacturers like Brompton, ultimately cycling triumphs.  And there can be reverse trickle down (trickle up, I suppose) too – in Ankh-Morpork, the adoption by the leisured classes of the sport of Foot-The-Ball is a case in point.

There are many ways we can influence and be influenced, some of which we may even admit to, but it seems that with craft beer, and with beer blogging, understanding trickle down is key because there are so many potential influencers – new start up brewers; official beer writers; unofficial beer bloggers; trade publications; CAMRA, the list goes on. That’s not to say it’s a theory that necessarily holds water – I once ran a project for a brewery investigating how influence spreads out from London into the provinces only to find out that there were as many examples of new trends springing up in smaller urban centres – the difference being that they didn’t tend to gain the same level of scale, and certainly not as rapidly.   But surely amongst beer writers we must be influenced by one another, by the different perspectives we bring – and surely over time this must impact drinkers?

Well, there’s certainly been a decade long creeping barrage of influence now: and in the UK cask beer remains the only segment of beer not experiencing scary decline – a trend repeated in its own way in many other countries.  Here, no self respecting pub fails to offer a decent range of regular and guest cask ales – indeed, in my local there’s even a small selection of U.S. bottled craft beers – and most critically, in some respects the most important influencers in this – the trade buyers are getting the message.  Sure, the likes of the big supermarkets have been stocking a decent range of interesting beers for a few years now, but B&M Bargains, really?  Oh yes.  And when we see the circle coming round again and more and more specialist beer and cider retailers opening and being successful, then we know the worm is truly turning.

Personally though, I like to think I have my own agenda, viz:  One: for every one craft beer I drink which is stunning there are 2 or 3 which don’t pass muster – this can’t be ignored.  Two: proper lagered beer will soon have its day again, rightly so.  Three: yes, the big brewers can brew decent tasting (craft) beers, but enjoy them quickly before the accountants insist on replacing the malt with liquefied pulped insect adjunct. Four: I absolutely believe that you have to (re) acclimatise yourself to hoppy bitterness after years of seeing brands being turned into blands.    Where did my agenda start?  Honestly, I’m not 100% sure.  Some from experience.  Some from emerging beliefs, anger or enjoyable experiences.  And yes, no doubt some from the opinions or recommendations from beer writers and experts.  At the end of the day though, the only thing that really counts for me is the overall experience of the beer itself:  is it beautiful? Does it pour delightfully with a head you want to drink in and drink through? Does the taste make you pine for more?  No, the real influencer for me is not trickle down, trickle up or hit-me-square-between-the-eyes-with-a-brick. It’s the vision, and the ability to execute the vision, of the brewers themselves in the finished beer.   And the true reality is that most beer drunk today – here or in other markets – remains characterless, passionless, cheap-brewed, artificially carbonated factory beer.  Whatever the influences on us, however much influence we think we have had as a community, the hard truth is, we are still at the beginning.  It’s a brutal fact to help keep us focused.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014