Up until 2002 beer in cans was the preserve of big breweries who wanted to stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap. Then along came Oskar Blues, the first US microbrewer to brew and can its own beer. Beginning with a tabletop machine (that filled two cans and seamed one can at a time), the small brewpub’s trailblazing energy soon turned it into one of the fastest growing breweries in the US.
Ever since then canned beer has undergone a resurrection. Breweries and consumers appreciate having a packaging solution that’s both efficient and sustainable. Cans fully protect the hops in beer from ruinous oxygen and UV light, and changes in technology mean that modern cans no longer produce the tinny taste that once spoiled a good brew.
The beer can revival
The rise of canned beer in the UK owes much of its success to Cask Brewing Systems, the makers of the small-scale canning gear first used by Oskar Blues. In May 2013, Camden Town Brewery used Cask’s equipment to become the first ‘microcanner’ in England. A year later two more London craft brewers – Fourpure Brewing and Beavertown Brewery – purchased Cask kits and made the ambitious move from bottles to cans.
Beavertown Brewery, now a leading craft brewer, took full advantage of the can’s 360˚ branding opportunity; their lively comic book designs never fail to stand out on the shelf.
When Beavertown were crowned Supreme Champion Brewer and UK Brewer of the Year in the 2015 International Beer Challenge (IBC), then head brewer, Jenn Merrick, attributed her company’s victory to their packaging choice. “The beers were judged in a blind tasting,” she said,” and our cans absolutely played a role in us winning the awards.”
Back across the pond, vibrant graphics are used to similar effect by Maryland-based brewery Flying Dog. The craft brewery has long staked its claim as masters of packaging design. The brand’s iconic artwork is all down to the friendship between brewery founder George Stranahan, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and legendary illustrator Ralph Steadman.
Flying Dog’s first canned beer, the Underdog Atlantic lager, hit the market in April 2012 and was followed a few months later by the caramel-noted Snake Dog IPA. In the same year the brewery rolled out its new and improved packaging designs that amplified Steadman’s chaotic and intricately detailed art. Although their bottle labels pack a helluva punch, it’s the can’s full metal jacket that really showcases the brand’s trademark swagger.
When it comes to making an investment, canning lines may be a pretty safe bet. In 2007, 2011 and 2016, trade body Beverage Can Makers Europe (BCME) commissioned market research institute, GfK, to study consumer perceptions of the beverage can and its position in the market.
They discovered that attitudes towards can designs have improved dramatically over the past decade. In 2007 just 16 per cent agreed that cans look nice. By 2016 that figure had jumped to 44 per cent. As more boundary pushing designs hit the market, there’s every reason to assume that perceptions will continue to improve.
In a more recent development, Fallen Brewing has just become one of the first craft breweries in Scotland to install a canning line. Nestled up in the Stirlingshire countryside, the brewery will be using its ABE canning line ‘Craft Can 15’ (supplied by Vigo Ltd.) to move its entire beer range into cans.
“We decided to invest in our own canning line as we believe that having control of the entire production process gives us the best chance of producing great beers,” says Paul Fallen, Managing Director of Fallen Brewing.
“We really needed to automate our small pack production to continue to grow. We believe that a good proportion of growth is going to come from small pack cans. Keg and cask is growing too but not at the same rate. So, we weighed up the benefits of can versus bottle, it was a big decision and a huge investment.”
Although Fallen maintains that there will always be a place for bottles in the marketplace, for his company the decision to move production to cans was obvious.
“They keep the beer fresher for longer, they’re light, efficient to stack, easy to recycle and more robust than glass bottles,” Fallen adds. “All of which means we can store more, ship more and reduce our carbon footprint when doing so, and at the end of the supply chain, the drinker gets a fresher, better quality product to enjoy.”
While poor quality beer and flawed technology once turned breweries and consumers away from cans, the innovative use of packaging design by microbreweries, coupled with the environmental and flavour-preserving benefits, means that the beer can is set to continue its rise from the ashes of its bargain-basement past.