Canned beer? Yes, craft brewers can too

FAN FAVOURITE: Wellington brewer Jos Ruffell, of Garage Project.
FAN FAVOURITE: Wellington brewer Jos Ruffell, of Garage Project.

Here's a question for you: What does Wellington's trendy craft brewer Garage Project have in common with many of America's largest craft brewers?

The answer: They all package at least some of their beers in cans.

Last month, during our beer tour of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, we came across several breweries which were offering at least one of their beers in cans.

On our first night in San Francisco we dined at the 21st Amendment brewpub, where the beer list includes canned beers such as Brew Free or Die IPA; Hop Crisis, an imperial IPA; and Hell or High Watermelon, a quenching wheat beer.

Three hours' drive north and inland, at its giant brewery in Chico, California's largest (and America's second largest) craft brewer Sierra Nevada cans several of its wonderful beers.

Meanwhile, across the border in Oregon, in the picturesque town of Bend, Deschutes and 10 Barrel both offer beers in cans. And in Portland, Hopworks Urban Brewery (Hub) is one of several craft breweries in Oregon's largest city which cans its beers.

The tin can made its first appearance as a container for beer in the 1930s in the United States. Although canned food and soup had been sold since early in the 19th century, tinned beer presented a greater challenge. Not only were cans more expensive than bottles at the time, but the tin affected the flavour of the beer and, unlike for foods, the cans had to be strongly constructed in order to withstand the internal pressure.

With the end of prohibition, American beer sales rose dramatically and can manufacturers set out to break into the glass-dominated beer market. One firm, CanCo, managed to develop a tin with an internal lining capable of resisting the pressure and, in 1933, persuaded a New Jersey brewer to test out its new product. Initial trials were a success and the company launched two canned beer brands in 1935.

The advantages in weight and size of the cans appealed to customers, who could store them in the refrigerators that were appearing in most kitchens at the time. Other companies were quick to seize the new marketing opportunity and by the end of the year there were 37 breweries, including the giants Pabst and Schlitz, sending out canned beer.

In December of the same year, Felinfoel Brewery in Llanelli, Wales, became the first European brewery to can its beer.

Although the brewing industry was quick to recognise the economic benefits of canned beer, European drinkers were generally harder to convince. Consumers in major beer drinking countries such as the Czech Republic and Germany were slow to accept their favourite brews in what they perceived as a substandard container.

More recently, governmental pressure to recycle glass has seen bottles reinforced as the preferred form of beer packaging in most European countries.

When I served my beer-drinking apprenticeship in England in the 1970s, canned beer was still perceived as inferior to its bottled counterpart.

English beer drinkers of my age and older will no doubt recall the dubious pleasures of "Party 4s" and "Party 7s". Designed unashamedly for social gatherings, these large red cans contained four or seven pints of one of England's most dubiously iconic brews, Watney's Red Barrel.

Despite the prejudice, the reality is that, technically at least, there's absolutely nothing wrong with beer in cans. Although the memories may remain, the days when drinkers could really detect a metallic taint in canned beer are long gone.

For years, brewers have lined the inside of their cans with an inert polyester coating which completely isolates the brew from the metal, so unless the beer is being consumed directly from the can - a practice which, like drinking from the bottle, I abhor - I'd be amazed if anyone could pick up any undesirable metallic flavours.

From the point of view of transportation and storage, it's a no-brainer: Cans are lighter, easier to stack and far less bulky than bottles and therefore offer reduced costs.

Although bottles and cans can both be recycled, sadly few are here in New Zealand.

But most importantly, and contrary to many people's prejudices, canned beer often actually tastes better than its bottled counterpart. The majority of pale ales and golden lagers - and especially those with a decent level of hopping - are susceptible to "light-strike", an unpleasant, cabbage-like aroma and flavour that's produced when acidic compounds in hops react with bright light.

Clear and green bottles offer little protection, while dark brown bottles are somewhat better. Cans, however, protect the beer totally and are therefore preferable.

And, finally, it's worth remembering that the very best tasting beer of all, draught beer, comes out of a metal container: A keg.

The Marlborough Express