There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the adoption of canned beer by some of Britain’s leading micro-brewers. The benefits of cans over bottles are fairly well known by now – lighter to carry, easier to store and stack, keeps in freshness and keeps out sunlight. However, the three British breweries to take up “microcanning” to date is a very tiny portion of the overall brewing community in the UK. So is it so much flash in the pan, or the beginning of the new wave?
Unsurprisingly, the technology and expertise behind Britain’s canning revolution has come from North America, where canned craft beer is very much par for the course. The company that has installed the canning lines at Camden Town, Beavertown and Fourpure is Cask Brewing System. Originating from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, they have played a major part in kicking off the canning movement on both sides of the pond; they installed the canning line at Oskar Blues, a fact Cask are quite proud of: “The tiny brewpub bought Cask’s manual machine (a tabletop device that filled two cans at once and seamed one can at a time) to become the first US microbrewer to brew and can its own beer.”
From North America, Cask Brewing Systems are now filling what seems like a very obvious niche with no noticeable competition here in Britain. It began in May 2013 when Camden Town Brewery bought the Cask set-up and became the UK’s first “microcanner”. Beavertown and Fourpure followed earlier this year.
However, all of these breweries are based in London, where the brewing bubble is somewhat inflated. It’s possible to dismiss London because of this; it’s a different beast from the rest of the British brewing scene, and simply because they all have canning machines doesn’t mean the rest of the country will follow suit. The British ‘tinnie’ still has a negative image in some beer circles, associated with slabs of Stella Artois, Tennent’s or Gold Label. There’s also the cost and scale – could the average micro-brewery afford such a contraption?
At the 2014 European Beer Blogger’s Conference, held in Dublin, I learned of the mobile canneries which operate in the United States. It seems incredibly obvious, doesn’t it? Britain is no larger than most American States, and with our relatively high density of breweries (somewhere around 1,300) there’s definite scope for a small number of mobile canneries to plough the motorways and roam the industrial estates, canning beer wherever they find it like a hero from a Johnny Cash song.
According to Cask Brewing Systems, that’s exactly what’s about to happen. ‘We Can’ has bought a canning line for the purpose of operating out of a truck and going to the small breweries that want cans but are either unsure yet of the benefits, can’t afford the set-up or don’t have the space at the moment. Cask are very confident of the new venture: “It’s a great way for a brewery to test the waters for its canned beer before buying its own machine. And the cans are an excellent marketing tool for brewpubs and small breweries looking to gain new customers and create a stir. But in the US we’ve found that there can be problems with the logistic for canners and brewers with such arrangements, and it gets difficult for both parties. But the UK market for cans is wide open and we support [We Can’]’s endeavour and hope it’s a success. It certainly helps promote the awareness of canned craft beer there.”
And so, after dipping their toes in the water and finding they have a thirst for canning their craft beer, where does the craft brewery go from there? Space and price are the two significant barriers, with most growing breweries already struggling to fit all of their conditioning tanks into their premises. However, space may not be that big a problem, “The footprints of our machines are tiny, from a small table top to about 20 square feet. Even for a tiny brewery, it’s pretty easy to find room for them. We have seen Cask machines tucked into some very tiny spots and cubby holes.”
The machines may fit on table tops and in cubby holes, but the target market is the 7+ BBL brewery rather than Joe Garage. Those who do make the investment haven’t been disappointed. “In our first month,” Fourpure brewery co-founder Daniel Lowe says, “our cans doubled our historic bottle sales. The second month they quadrupled them.” Meanwhile, Logan Plant, Beavertown’s founder, says “The acceptance of our cans has been amazing. We started up our Cask canning line in May and cans have already become 65% of our sales, while bottles are just 7%.”
Rooster’s from Yorkshire will be next to install a canning line, with a few more unnamed parties expressing a strong interest. So it’s growing, and growing quickly. Alongside the mobile canneries, we’re likely to reach a point soon where the question isn’t “Can I can?” but “Should I can?”
The means will be within the reach of most serious breweries, so much so that the method itself may become a point of ideology. Logan Plant says, “I’m looking to push bottles out but for a few specialty beers.” It’s a telling statement. Outside of the debate over which is better (another extension of the Cask v Keg argument) it may transpire that bottled beer comes to represent a smaller, premium end of the craft beer market, reserved for speciality beers.
Some commentators are already claiming we live in the post-craft era, where innovation will give way to consistency. There’s definitely a feel of consistency in cans – from Heinz Baked Beans to Coca Cola, we expect the exact same product to come out of a can time and time again. With bottle conditioning and yeasty dregs, we know that our bottled beer may not always go the way intended.
Of course, with high-strength premium beers, we enjoy the wine-like maturation it undergoes; but in our lower-strength, quick hit beers, we demand consistency. So, with the post-craft age, cans are likely to fill the middle tranche of craft beer and potentially a sizeable portion of the market. Meanwhile, bottles will be the reserve of the struggling start-up brewery, die-hard real ale breweries, and premium/speciality beers.
We call it a canning revolution, but it the revolution has come and gone. This is the start of a post-conquest consolidation, one that reflects our early post-craft era.
For anyone interested in the overlap where beer porn meets industrial porn, here’s a video of beer being canned: http://www.cask.com/main/index.php?page_id=150