Canned beer’s bad rep among beer aficionados is changing fast, thanks to the eager adoption by innovative craft brewers of new microcanning technologies
There’s a technology revolution taking place in the world of beer, and specifically craft beer: microcanning. Of course beer cans are nothing new, but for various reasons - notably the cost of setting up and running a canning line - they have become a shorthand for mass-market or industrial beers. Craft brewers are associated instead with bottles, which can even be hand-filled for the lowest possible capital cost.Now all that is changing. The advent of small-scale canning technology is enabling even quite small brewers to take it up, with several microcanning lines in operation around the UK and Ireland. The technology is widely used in the US too, driven by cans being easier to handle, less breakable, much lighter (so cheaper to ship) and pretty much lightproof - ultraviolet is a great enemy of bottled beer. They also provide the graphic designer with a great canvas.
Could this be what democratises craft beer, sometimes seen as a snobby and elitist market? Microcanners clearly hope so. “We’ve found there is a real excitement about new beer in a new package - it’s different,” says Matt Jancauskas, production manager at London’s Beavertown Brewery. “Then there is the total convenience and the massive quality improvement.”
In some ways it resembles the invention of the iPhone - all the technology was there, but no one built small canning machines because no one asked for them. Two things catalysed a change: the 1999 recession and the way the American-inspired craft beer business thrives on novelty.
Pioneered in Canada
“That recession had brewers looking for ways to increase their market share,” recalls Peter Love, the founder of Canadian microcanning pioneer Cask Brewing Systems. Although it started as a supplier of brewing equipment, Cask gained small-scale canning experience from its work with Canadian brew-on-premises stores - places where homebrewers can work on a professional-grade brewery.
Love says that in the early 1990s some stores enquired about canning to give them a competitive advantage. “Customers were getting tired of carting heavy boxes of bottles to and fro, washing them for refilling and so on,” he recalls. “At the time, everybody thought the only way to do canning was a large machine. The only options available were bulky and expensive, and packaged too much product. We had to find a lower-speed fill mechanism and a seamer that wasn’t too big. We weren’t really involved in packaging then, except for some bottling work, but we designed a two-head filler and purchased a small can seamer - that’s how you put the lid on the can. After that we decided to develop our own seamer.”
However, when Love targeted the recession-driven opportunity south of the border, the initial reaction from US brewers was that it was a ‘dumb idea’ and that ‘nobody in the craft brewing industry would put their beer in cans!’
Fortunately for him, not everyone thought that way. Cask started winning customers for its manual canning machines and began developing a 30-cans-per-minute automated version. Other equipment suppliers such as Colorado’s Wild Goose Canning joined in as canned craft beer took off during the 2000s, and now microcanning has spread across the Atlantic too.
Of course, Europe already has canning suppliers, notably in Germany and Italy, and there are more in India and elsewhere. These have traditionally targeted large-scale installations though - too large to do contract canning for a microbrewery.
“A lot of people associate cans with bad beer, and they blame the cans rather than the beer put in them!” laughs Gráinne Walsh, brewer and co-founder at Metalman, a Cask customer that’s the first Irish microbrewery to do its own canning. “I’m a big fan of beer in a can - it preserves it very well and gives it a good shelf life. We had discounted canning initially though because we thought it was out of our league. We did speak to [drinks conglomerate] C&C, who are the only people doing contract canning in Ireland, but they have a 27,000-litre line with around 3000 litres wastage per run. That means just the wastage on their line is almost our entire production run.”
Cask’s innovation - although Love doesn’t call it that - was to drop the complex counter-pressure systems used in big beer canning and bottling lines and simply open-fill the can. A counter-pressure system seals the container from the atmosphere, then fills it with CO2 and maintains a constant CO2 pressure on the beer during filling, so the container fills without foaming. The result is less spillage and minimal dissolved oxygen - dissolved oxygen is the other big enemy of packaged beer.
However, CO2 is heavier than air, so if you squirt it into the open can it settles to the bottom and displaces the air. Add beer and more CO2 before the lid goes on, and you have startlingly low levels of oxygen in the can, says Jancauskas. “We have a rotary bottling line that pressurises the bottles and so on. Our canning line is very basic by comparison,” he says. “The cans come down open, five wands purge them with CO2, they’re gravity-filled with liquid and a lid drops on with another squirt of CO2. We’re getting 40 parts per billion of dissolved oxygen in our cans, versus 200ppb on the counter-pressure bottling line!”
Not everyone in brewing is convinced, however. “I still have a few concerns,” says Dave Bailey, the brewer at Cumbrian microbrewery Hardknott. “The whole business of ensuring a gas-tight seal, and the fact that the beer surface is so much larger before sealing than with a bottle worries me. It doesn’t quite stack up in my mind that the risk of oxygen take-up is actually less.”
“I am unconvinced that the canners towards the lower end of the market are capable of sealing the can without potentially picking up detrimental levels of dissolved oxygen,” agrees Rob Lovatt, brewmaster at Derbyshire’s Thornbridge Brewery. “Although I am sure we could achieve extra sales and the exposure would be great having beer in can, having customers drink oxidised beer from a can would do no favours for our reputation.”
The other problem facing microcanning today is that the minimum order quantity for printed cans is over 100,000 units per design, needing storage space and tying up several thousand pounds in an already capital-intensive business. In contrast, Bailey says he can buy bottles a few thousand at a time and have labels printed in mere hundreds.
Walsh says it’s just volume: Metalman has one main product line in its Pale Ale (though it plans to add more), so it could justify the minimum order. Its automated canner will allow it to expand from pubs into off-licences and export markets.
“What worried us in the early days about buying 100,000 cans at a time is not a problem now,” agrees Jancauskas. “We started with five different canned beers, now we have eight. We didn’t expect it to catch on this quickly - we were 50 per cent keg, 25 per cent bottles and 25 per cent cans, but now we’re 55 per cent cans and 40 per cent keg.”
Aluminium cans also need less energy than bottles to recycle, he says. Of course, reusable bottles ought to be even better, but many in the brewing industry are resistant, citing the collection and transport costs and the risks of inadequate washing.
He adds that Beavertown will carry on bottling. “Certain markets still want bottles, such as high-end restaurants,” he explains. “Also we need bottles in order to do bottle-conditioning, for example for wild beers. Being able to bottle-condition [re-ferment in the bottle] and allow a little oxygen in is very useful there. Plus you can get bottles in such small quantities and in different shapes and sizes, whereas cans come in pallets of 8000.”
Contract canning in a van
While some breweries can find £30,000 or so for a manually-operated canning line or £100,000 for an automated one, many can’t. One solution is a mobile canning line, which comes to your brewery.
“We’ve fitted a machine into a Transit van,” says Andy Hughes, co-founder of WeCan, the UK’s first mobile canner. “It’s on a trolley, we come to a brewery with cans in a trailer and hook the machine up to a bright [filtered beer] tank. The whole operation fits in a 3m by 3m footprint, and we leave them with 10,000 to 15,000 filled cans plus the clips to make up four or six-packs.”
Hughes confirms that the supply of printed cans is the remaining challenge, but says there are interim solutions such as adhesive labels or printed shrink-wraps. It is also possible to digitally print onto a blank can; some who’ve seen this, e.g. Jancauskas, say the quality isn’t there yet, but this may well be the next breakthrough.
One other development is that the counter-pressure suppliers are starting to shrink their machines. For example, Chicago’s Palmer Canning entered the microbrewery market with a range starting at 35 cans per minute. Company founder Mike Palmer says it’s a step above the open-fill machines, but is mechanically more complex and needs at least a 20- or 30-barrel tank to feed it. Many microbreweries only have 10-barrel tanks.
“We started doing smaller canning systems for microbreweries three years ago,” Palmer says. “It’s partly that there’s more innovation going on now, and partly that there’s capital behind these guys now to buy equipment. Then you add the ‘millennials’ to the equation - they don’t care if it’s can or bottle, and they’re willing to pay for craft.”
So it’s not surprising that even the sceptics are still interested. “We haven’t decided not to can, just not quite yet,” notes Hardknott’s Bailey. “We invested in a bottling line just over two years ago. When we get that to capacity, we may well look at canning as the next logical step.” *