Consider the humble can as container and cultural object
Saturday 24 September 2022
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Stone USA & Friends
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"If you go into a US supermarket, the entire beer range sits in a fridge,” notes Clym Buxton, Northern Monk’s national account manager. “You walk down actual aisles, and it’s just fridge upon fridge where all their beer is kept. You go into a UK supermarket and the beer is just sitting on an ambient shelf with no temperature control.” He’s not angry, he’s just disappointed.
I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that this would be the first thing to come to the mind of a Monk, when discussing the ways US craft is ahead of industry in the UK. The can plays a central role in Northern Monk’s whole modus operandi, being both a container for the beer and a canvas for the creative collaborations foundational to its identity. With the bulk of the brewery’s beer being sold through off-trade channels, refrigeration is important to Clym.
The logistical lens might seem an unusual one to apply to a comparison between US and UK beer, but it draws particularly interesting parallels between Stone and Northern Monk. A major feature of Stone’s success in the US – and a reason why it came to the UK later than, say, Sierra Nevada – was that it insisted that beer could not be transported without door-to-door cold-chain supply.
With the volatile oils in American hops being susceptible to rapid deterioration, Stone was adamant that measures be taken to ensure beer arrived at its destination in the best possible condition. This meant constant refrigeration was a must. Today, Stone is so celebrated for the cultivation of its own cold-chain supply network that other US breweries also use Stone Distribution to transport their beers around the country. Stone Distribution has, interestingly, not been a part of the Sapporo acquisition, and will remain independent.
But for all this talk of refrigeration, Stone was still using 60% bottles before the pandemic, setting it at a disadvantage to breweries that prevent hop-degradation by using cans to block out 100% of UV light; a common cause of death to delicate hop compounds. Nine out of the ten times you encounter a Northern Monk beer, it will be in a can, and for good reason. Beyond preserving hop compounds characteristic of the hazy and New England styles that Northern Monk is known for, cans have always offered the brewery a greater surface area for label artwork.
“The vast majority of our beers get canned,” says Clym. “In fact, it would be quite rare, especially with some of the very limited run stuff, that a beer would just get kegged. We do have a growing on-trade market, so our beer is obviously enjoyed there too, but the can artwork produced by our design team is a really important part of our portfolio.”
We're all about building the overall beer experience; it's not just a case of necking a can
The importance of collaboration to Northern Monk cannot be overstated. The brewery’s Patron series was established to cultivate community and foster creative and interdisciplinary collaboration between artists, athletes, musicians and crafters in the North. Each collaborating partner, or Patron, works with the brewery to create a seven-beer series which can be produced over a period of time.
Most interestingly to me though, all Patron beers have a peel-and-reveal label that tells the drinker a bit about the collaboration and how the beer they’re holding fits into it. This is by no means a new thing for Northern Monk, as the Patron series has been ongoing for years and by extension, so has its use of peel and reveal labels. But something about a can acting both as container and a cultural object, tickles me.
I have always been frustrated by what can feel like a disconnect between the experience of drinking beer – a glass of golden liquid that speaks through flavour and aroma – and the stories of collaboration that lie behind it. “We're all about building the overall beer experience; it's not just a case of necking a can,” says Clym. “It's why having this thing in front of you that you can read, and can hopefully collect a whole series of, is really important to us. We do some really, really cool stuff with a lot of fantastic people and we want to share that.”
Though the beer Northern Monk has made for this month’s Beer52 box is not a part of its Patron series, the same principles apply to the Anchor-inspired American porter’s label. Clym tells me that with special or limited release beers, Northern Monk will usually do a twist on one of the classic beers in its core range and indicate this on the can label, along with the brew’s three core flavours.
In the case of the American porter, the label flags that the beer is a twist on Northern Monk’s Northern Star porter; from here, if drinkers chose to compare the two, they’d find similarities in the chocolate notes shared by both, and be able to clearly differentiate between the flavours of pine and coffee in the American porter, and caramel and biscuit in the brewery’s core porter.
I must say that having laboured over my research for this issue – drawing connections between beers produced over several decades by multiple breweries using a variety of hops – I have a deeper respect for breweries that recognise every drinker is at a different point in their journey through the world of beer.
Piney, herbaceous American hops are most interesting when compared to European styles, but for drinkers picking up a can from a supermarket shelf that connection isn’t always obvious. Even if you know it's worth making the comparison between West Coast and traditional English beers, it can be hard to select brews that are similar but different enough to make suitable pairings.
It sounds obvious because it is, and yet this simple, thoughtful signposting does so much to make craft beer more accessible. Far from focusing on the interests of other breweries, chasing a style, or competing for the most bitter and unbalanced beer, Northern Monk has here allowed drinkers to get excited about comparison, find their feet among flavours, and invested in its drinkers’ membership to the craft beer community.
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