Yes they can – but is canned beer actually better?

Hop Hooligans, Beast from the Yeast, Bereta – these are the three Romanian craft breweries that package by the can, taken in chronological order.

The canning trend took off in June 2018, when Hop Hooligans announced that they were leaving bottles behind. About a year later, we caught wind of Bereta planning to do the same, and last month they finally transitioned to can. Beast from the Yeast emerged on the market like a bat out of hell in early 2020, a little brewery with a canning line under its belt and some of the quirkiest label designs in the country. But what made them all go for cans?

There are several reasons why cans rock, so let’s take a look:

Oxygen ruins beer
Beer and oxygen don’t get along, and the moment beer leaves the tanks to be packaged, the risk of oxidation is lurking in the background. With bottles, there’s always the chance that air will be trapped in the empty space above the beer, and then it’s only a matter of time before oxidation starts wreaking havoc. This is particularly bad for hoppy beers, which can develop stale, papery off-flavours, and can even impact the colour, making the beer darker. You can cap on foam, but craft breweries often have manual (and therefore inconsistent) filling and capping lines, and the risk of oxygen getting in your beer will always be there. On the other hand, cans are filled pretty much to the brim, and the empty space between the beer and the lid is vastly reduced.

Light also ruins beer
You might have wondered why most craft beers are bottled in dark, brown or black bottles. The reason for that is the fact that isomerized alpha acids in hops, when hit by UV rays, release the same chemicals skunks use to fight-off danger – yup, that’s why they call the resulting off-flavour ‘skunky’. The darker the bottle, the more it can protect the beer. Yet even with dark bottles, the chance of your beer being damaged by UV rays still exists. Cans are opaque, eliminating this problem altogether.

Packaging is faster and more even
As Adi from Bereta puts it, bottling is as different from canning, as walking is from driving between Cluj and Timișoara. If one batch of beer takes about 4 days to bottle, the canning process is done in 3 hours. The faster you can empty your fermenters, the sooner you can make more beer. And this also ties in with oxidation. With cans, the process is often automated, meaning that the cans are filled evenly, and because it’s faster, it allows the beer to have less contact with the air.

Cans are easier to recycle
In Romania, producers’ contribution to the environment fund is 2 RON per kilo. That means you pay 2 RON for about five 330 ml bottles vs. seventy-five 330 ml cans. As a brewer, you have to pay more just to have your beer packaged in bottles – and that’s before you add up the actual recycling fees. The fact that you can only recycle glass about 7-9 times, whereas aluminium can be recycled until the end of time (or thereabouts) is another plus that Mother Nature will also be grateful for.

Cans allow for easier storage and transportation
A typical 330 ml bottle weighs around 215 g when empty, and 553 g when full. The average 330 ml can weighs about 15 g when empty, and 364 g when full. The cost of shipping cans is far cheaper than bottles, and if you add the fact that cans are easier to stack and they take up less space, you’re up for an all around winner. And it’s not just the brewers who find it convenient: it’s far easier on the old back to carry around a 6 pack of cans as opposed to a 6 pack of bottles. Add to this the fact that cans conduct heat better than glass, and this means that canned beers are also easier to chill  – always a good thing when you’re dying for a cold beer.

Overall, cans far outweigh bottles in terms of pros. They’re better for the environment, cheaper for the brewers, and they provide a better quality beer for the… wait, what’s that you’re saying?

‘Yeah but what about the taste though? I don’t want my beer tasting like metal.’

Luckily for craft beer lovers around the globe, canned beer doesn’t taste like metal. Cicerones have weighed in on this and the consensus is that cans have no impact on the flavour of beer, due to the lining in the can which prevents any metallic…

‘Yeah but what about them BPAs? I heard they’re bad for you.’

Biosphenol A is indeed used in the can lining, and you’ll find it in a variety of every day items as well, from water bottles and Tupperware, to sport equipment and even thermal paper used in receipts. The European Food Safety Authority is still researching its potential ill effects on health, while the US Food & Drug Administration says that scientific evidence continues to support the safety of BPA.

‘Right, ok, but I remember that before Hop Hooligans switched to cans, their beers were better, and I will never forgive them for that. And now Bereta are also canning and my life will never be the same again!’

Hmm, you might be on to something there. Luckily, Bereta had a brilliant marketing plan for introducing this new packaging, that will hopefully answer two questions once and for all: does canned beer really taste like metal, and is canned beer actually better?

Behold our two contenders:

DSC_0009

What you see before you is the Bottle vs. Can IPA from Bereta. Same batch, packaged two ways. We don’t normally post beer reviews, but we’re making an exception for you guys. A blind tasting of the two beers, on a quest to find out how are they different. Let’s get cracking:

Beer 1:
Nose: fruitier (compared to beer 2), hoppy (lots of Mosaic), flowery (think plum and cherry tree flowers), hint of a slight tang;
Taste: not very bitter, seems less carbed than beer 2, has a slight astringency (we’ll get back to this in a bit);

Beer 2:
Nose: hoppy, but a muted version of beer 1, slight yeast, mild bitterness;
Taste: fuller bodied, more grains in the first sips, deeper dank hop flavour;

Notes: both beers look the same in the glass, and taste the same after 2 minutes. After 5 minutes, the hop aroma becomes more noticeable in beer 2, while beer 1 develops a slight tartness after 6 minutes. One of us preferred beer 1, the other beer 2, so the odds are even.

But which is which? Let’s raise the curtain:

DSC_0012

So beer 1 is the bottle, and beer 2 is the can. And while they looked and tasted the same for the most part, there is one thing worth addressing (this is the opinion of just one of the ‘test subjects’ so take it with a pinch of salt): the slight tartness.

Now, ‘tartness’ might not be the right word. It’s a mild, unexplainable mix of astringency, dryness and hop burn that lingers at the back of your throat. It’s not unpleasant, and it’s not an off-flavour either. If anything, it’s a taste that I have come to associate with Bereta (the same way I associate Centennial with Hophead), and it’s a taste I found in most of their IPAs since they started brewing at their own brewery. To be honest, I was never a fan of it, and even though I was glad it was missing from the can, I felt a pang of sadness at the fact that (as some people would say) Bereta beers would never taste the same again (but again, that’s nostalgia speaking). However, this can might have been a one-off. I tried Digging the Well shortly after and the ‘Bereta taste’ was there, so maybe this calls for further experiments (which will take place as soon as our beer order arrives).

It’s worth mentioning that we perhaps carried out this side-by-side comparison a little prematurely. One of the main advantages of cans is that they keep beer fresher for longer, especially hop-forward styles. Perhaps 1-2 months after the release date, we’ll start seeing more noticeable differences.

One thing is certain: none of the beers smelled, tasted or looked like metal. And here’s the funny thing: we have had beers that tasted like sucking on a copper (and we don’t mean a British police officer) but they were always in bottles. As far as off-flavours go, metal is not that common, and it’s typically caused by brewing equipment, improperly stored malt, and even water – but never cans. In fact, if you have any doubts about whether your beer does have a metallic off-flavour, there’s a very simple test you can do: stick your finger in the beer, then rub it against the skin between your thumb and index finger. It will most likely smell like sweat, maybe cat piss, depending on the hops – which is ok. But if there are any metallic off-flavours in the beer, you’ll pick them up immediately.

This isn’t to say that cans are the be all and end all for packaging. Some beers actually benefit from skunky flavours, which is why 3 Fonteinen and Lindemans use green bottles. Belgian beers are typically bottle conditioned, and their higher carbonation wouldn’t work with a can, which is why Oriel Beer, for example, also use thicker bottles than other Romanian breweries. And some beers, like barleywines, actually benefit from a bit of oxidation.

As far as the industry goes, we find it amazing that already we have 3 craft breweries in Romania that can. It may not seem that big a deal, but if you look back 3-4 years ago, many of the small breweries (under 1000 hl per year) weren’t even available on draft. Brewers didn’t have the equipment, the kegs, the couplers for the job – and convincing bar owners to put them on tap was a different hurdle altogether. When Hophead finally kegged their beer in June 2017, it was such an achievement that they named their keg Frank. How many breweries do you think name their first kegs now? (spoilers: probably none) For the industry to have gone from ‘We can finally drink craft beer on tap!’ to ‘Oh look these guys are also canning‘ in such a short time is a massive feat, and it says a lot about how consumers and HoReCa have evolved.

You can argue that the whole can vs. bottle debate comes down to preference, and ‘de gustibus non est disputandum’. Personally, we’ll always prefer our craft beers by the can. And who knows, maybe several years from now, you’ll crack open a can of Urban IPA and think to yourself ‘Man, switching to cans is the best thing these guys ever did’. But until then, let’s enjoy the beers, and keep an open mind.

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