Have we reached peak craft beer can?
29 March 2016, By Jonny Garrett
I remember the first time I saw a good beer in a can. It was in the Blackheart in Camden, and the beer in question was Sierra Nevada Torpedo.
I was brought up to assume that any beer in a can wasn’t worth its weight in aluminium. It was all Carlsberg, Carling and Stella in 440ml cans drunk by Nuts! readers at 10am on trains to Swindon Football Club. This dislike was cemented in my brain when, at the tender age of 14, I was hit over the head with a full can of Foster's by a sixth former from a rival school. As revelations go it was a painful but irreversible one.
So when I saw this Torpedo in the fridge I was initially revolted. Why shove a fantastic, sticky marmalade-like IPA in a can? Why take an artisanal product and package it in a crass way? But I was also intrigued – being a rare beer in the UK at the time, I’d never had the opportunity to share more than a 330ml bottle – so a whole half litre was too much to resist.
Three cans later apparently I wasn’t making much sense to my friends; twelve hours later and I awoke to find my sweat smelling of citra. That first sip had been so beguiling that I hadn’t notice all the others that followed it. A beer that had travelled half way across the world and then sat at the back of a fridge for a month was tasting fresher, hoppier, lighter and cleaner than it ever had.
That was the first, but by no means the last wonderful experience I have had with cans. Now I love the crack of the seal breaking, the whiplash as the flap is pushed back. I love the creamy foam that rushes to greet you and the surge of hop aroma that escapes as it does. I’m satisfied by how a six-pack feels in your hands, and the physicality of breaking it from its plastic clip. I’m seduced by the wrap-around artwork and the way it looks on the shelves. I'm even fine with the hype that surrounds it – I buy into it, fully conscious that I am doing so. While many thought Brewdog's Black Eyed King Imp – a 12.7% imperial stout in a can – was just a gimmick, I disagree. It's destroying any notion that cans aren't a valid way to store an alcoholic drink. It's taking ownership back from the watered down beers that were associated with them.
There are more practical, less romantic reasons to love the can too. In most regions it’s better for the environment because it’s easier to recycle. It chills down quicker than bottles and when filled in the right way, protects the beer more effectively from light and oxygen.
That said, there are flaws as well. For a start, they are easier to pierce or damage, which is a huge issue for importing beers or transporting them. More importantly some brewers claim that while they protect beer better once sealed in the can, they are significantly worse as protecting them before that point, particularly from oxygen. The head brewer of Thornbridge makes a fairly convincing argument here.
Getting beer into a bottle without exposing it to the air for a long period of time is far easier than with a can. This particularly applies to cheaper canning lines, and we’ve spoken to countless breweries who have had issues with the mobile canning and smaller machines they have had to start with.
Oxidation in beer can taste cardboard-like or even honey-like which, depending on the beer, can vary from mildly distracting to downright disgusting. It takes away the hop and malt complexities of a beer and replaces it with bland, thin quality.
We’ve seen some damned fine canned beers, but also some borderline undrinkable ones. But there is no drinking experience quite like a dripping-cold American pale ale straight from the can on a hot day. The joy of beer isn’t just the flavour, it’s the experience. For us, the can is an unrivalled way to enjoy it when out and about.
Our favourite craft beer cans
One of the best core beers in the country, this tropical, aromatic and bittersweet American pale ale is yet to be beaten from a can. It’s so drinkable it should come with a warning. Ok, I mean another warning not related to poorly thought out alcohol guidelines.
We talked earlier about that hit of hoppy aroma that flies out of the can when you crack it. No beer in the world does that as well as Lucky Jack Grapefruit. The pithy, juicy aroma of grapefruit permeates the whole room within seconds of being opened. The beer itself is a dry, citrusy joy with lots of acidity from the peel and juice used. It's quite simply the best fruited IPA we know.
The beer that got me into cans, it had to be included. The marmalade, pithy moreishness of this beer shouldn’t be ignored even now most IPAs go for the fruitier, sweeter aromas. A true classic that’s a joy from such a perversely large serving.
Perhaps the best American lager in the market at the moment, Sly Fox Helles is a very traditional and accurate take on the German lager. Light, lemony and biscuit it just slips down – partly helped by the fact that the ringpull takes the entire top off rather than creating just a hole. An amazing beer and an awesome little bit of engineering.
At 12.7% this is the strongest beer ever committed to can, and the sheer decadence of it makes it exciting. Black Eyed King Imp was first released 2 years ago in bottle, and was one of our favourite imperial stouts ever – with loads of vanilla, cocoa and sweet molasses it reminded us of Bourbon County Stout at it’s best. Now in a can with Vietnamese coffee it’s got a bit more acidity and loads of roasted coffee notes. It’s definitely a sharer, but it’s also definitely a beer you have to try before you die.