The rebirth of canned beer

Selection of craft canned beers Image copyright

Beer in a can. It has a decades-old image problem - bland, mass-produced and metallic-tasting. Now craft brewers are trying to do for canned beer what New World winemakers did for screwcaps more than a decade ago, writes Megan Lane.

Order a craft beer in one of the modish American-style eateries springing up around the UK, and chances are it will arrive in a can.

It's a packaging choice big producers have made for decades. Cans are lighter and easier to transport. The seal is airtight and the metal casing lets in no light, extending the shelf-life of the brew within. Modern cans come with polymer linings, which act as an impermeable barrier between beer and aluminium.

A handful of small North American producers switched to cans in the early 2000s. Today 413 craft breweries in the US use cans, according to the Craft Cans database. A lavishly illustrated book on beer can artwork was published this year, and the 2013 indie movie Drinking Buddies - largely filmed in Chicago's Revolution Brewing, which has its own canning line - revolved around characters swigging canned craft beer.

"The mainstream image of the can is that it's a plebeian package for a poor quality product," says Ben McFarland, of drinks writing duo Thinking Drinkers, co-founders of Hobo, one of the first canned craft beers sold in the UK.

The pioneers of canned craft beer

Image copyright AP

1991: Mid-Coast Brewing Company launched cans of Chief Oshkosh Red Lager - its ad copy emphasised the use of cans "to protect delicate flavours"

1992: Switched to bottles after consumer resistance

1994: Mid-Coast brewery folded

2001: Canada's Yukon Gold craft brewery put its lager into cans as this was the container of choice in the province

2002: Colorado's Oskar Blues began canning its beer, the first US craft brewer to re-embrace the can

The cost of canning is starting to fall, due to changing technology and demand from microbrewers. Some have installed their own canning lines. "When we started looking for a canning supplier a couple of years ago, there weren't many who could provide small batch runs as it was simply too costly," says McFarland.

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Two years ago, gourmet burger chain Byron - which has outlets in 10 cities around England - added two US canned craft beers to its menu, a conscious decision to try to change minds, says a spokesman. Today, nine of its 11 craft beers come in cans. "Our customers are drinking more beer in our restaurants now than when we served mostly bottles."

McFarland counsels against swigging straight from the can - or bottle, for that matter. Pouring beer into a glass allows for a fuller olfactory experience, an important factor in our sense of taste. The metallic tang many associate with canned beers is actually thought to be the scent of aluminium as can approaches nose. No wonder the Australians call a can of beer a "tinny".

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