Let's hop in a time machine and go back to a pub in 2010. Cans of beer are conspicuous by their absence — they are usually the preserve of those quaffing merrily in the park or found at a house party in discount supermarket slabs.

"It was a shame that bad beer impacted the packaging format the way it did," says Dan Lowe of Fourpure, which in 2014 was the first UK-based craft brewery to start canning its core range, "though, if you go further back, some of the great traditional breweries canned their exceptional beer, which didn't have these issues."

Times have changed. Visit any pub with pretensions to craft beer now and a colourful range of (mainly) 330ml cans will be on display. As well as Fourpure, offerings from Beavertown, Camden and Dark Star are common. The off-trade has also fallen for the new generation of craft cans.

 

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No passing fad
Some might say cans are another hipster-inclined fad, alongside multi-flavoured sours in small measures, no-plate meals and Victorian beards. Figures would suggest otherwise, though.

The Society of Independent Brewers recently estimated there were three craft beer can-filling lines in 2014; the current estimate is 20-plus. Further sign of growth is suggested by data trends company Nielsen, whose research showed an 18 per cent rise in sales of 330ml canned beers in the half-year to June 2015.

So this new wave of canned beers is not just a flash in the can, especially as the
container gives the chance of 360˚ branding. A further development has been London Beer Factory's development of a ring-pull design that enables the drinker to remove the lid completely (Sapporo had something similar in the 1980s).

Jon Hickling is director and head brewer at Hebden Bridge's Vocation Brewery, whose beers are all available in cans. He is convinced cans are the future.

"The beer benefits from the absence of oxygen and light, while the brewer benefits from easier transport, no broken glass and much less space taken in storage," he says. "The customer benefits from better beer and, if you squash the cans down nicely, your recycling bin is far less incriminating. They are here to stay."

Purity Brewery has also dipped its beery toes into the sector, first with Longhorn IPA and, more recently, Saddle Black.

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Brewery founder Paul Halsey points out the benefits of cans to the licensee: "They are easier to stack and store in fridges and can be sold in quantity, at speed, without any sacrifice on quality. Cans have also allowed Purity to enter new markets where glass bottles aren't appropriate, such as gigs and festivals."

It's not just the smaller breweries getting involved, though — Adnams and Fuller's, where beers such as Southwold Bitter and London Pride reside in traditional 500ml cans, have gone down the 330ml route as well.

Meanwhile in Scotland, Andy Maddock, managing director of the Heineken-owned Caledonian Brewery, says: "We're currently reviewing our modern craft range, which includes Three Hop craft lager, Coast to Coast American pale ale and rye beer Rare Red, to determine which of our products we will offer to customers in canned format in the future."

 

Flying out of the bar
He points out another advantage to the licensee: "At the bar, they are an easy and quick serve for bar staff compared with pulling a pint, so can have an impact on profitability and help to reduce waiting times during busy periods."

Licensee Tom Harrison agrees and has embraced the trend at his pub, The Duke's Head in Highgate, London, persuading his customers to join him in the canned revolution. "The easiest way to open the cans up to new faces is to encourage them to take some away," he says. "People often do that and then return. We've also had a bit of fun with can-versus-keg taste tests and they definitely hold up."

Another licensee who has stocked cans but who has come to a different conclusion is Stuart Chapman-Edwards at The Albion Ale House in the Welsh town of Conwy.
"I started selling cans from Sierra Nevada and Flying Dog in 2013," he says. "They looked good on the shelf, though often the design of the can was more appealing than my carefully researched tasting notes for them," he says.

"The cans were good sellers immediately. I found the age group 20 to 30 loved them and it almost felt like these punters were being unfaithful to a relationship with real ale that I'd spent time cultivating with them. I then decided to pull the menu when I saw a similar menu in Wetherspoons."

 

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Not all brewers are convinced, either. Take Thornbridge, secure in its historic position as the godfather of UK craft beer; however, no canning line clanks away in its brewing hall.
Head brewer Rob Lovatt first expressed his doubt on the brewery's blog in 2014 and, writing at the start of 2016, he was firmer in his scepticism.

 

Best for beer?
"While cans are fashionable and are easy to carry around, we have to do what is best for our beer, which is why we have decided to invest in the KHS Filler instead —the Rolls-Royce of bottling lines," he says.

Another brewery known for boldly flavoured beers is Bristol Beer Factory, where managing director Simon Bartlett also shows a reluctance to ditch bottles. He cites doubts about quality, image and branding as the reasons for his can scepticism and also puts forward an intriguing point for discussion.

"It seems to me the can is another opportunity to put out your most extreme-flavoured beer. I was at a tasting a fortnight ago and the first beer was in a can. It really was just like drinking alcoholic Lilt — only enhanced by the fact it was in a can," he says.

There is one final point drinkers and licensees might like to consider: quality.

Not all cans are equal, as Dark Star's sales and marketing director James Cuthbertson argues.

"On small-scale canning I think the quality benefits are over-played, with too many brewers putting too long a 'best before' date on beer," he says. "I think we want to promote a 'drink fresh' attitude to cans. This might restrict our volume of sales, but it'll mean consumers will be drinking better beer."

 

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