Yes we can

This issue, we’re celebrating the mighty can and its central role in the global craft beer revolution
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Once emblematic of cheap, mass-produced lager – particularly in Europe – the can has enjoyed a real comeback in the past decade among serious beer lovers. Although not as romantic as the traditional brown bottle, cans have numerous advantages: they protect against light strike more effectively, chill faster than glass and are much kinder on the environment. They have also enabled collaboration between brewers and artists, transforming label design from something functional to a core element of craft beer culture.

The earliest cans were made from either steel or tin plate and were relatively heavy, complicated and expensive to produce. They either resembled three-part food cans – the kind you’ll usually find vegetables in today – or bizarre can/bottle hybrids, with a conical top tapering up to a screw cap. Although the question of mental contamination is hotly contested (many manufacturers testily insist it has never been a problem) some beer lovers continue to avoid cans on the basis that older iterations were said to give beer an unpleasant metallic tang.

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Today’s ubiquitous two-part can design has been about for a little over 80 years, and is manufactured from 100 percent aluminium or, less commonly, a combination of aluminium and steel. While the process for manufacturing cans has definitely been refined and improved over this time, the fundamentals remain the same.

The ‘end’ or top piece of the can starts life as a large coil of sheet aluminium, out of which is punched circular ‘shells’. These are then scored with the shape of an opening, and embossed or debossed to ensure they tear correctly when opened. A special liner is applied, which will eventually create the seal with the can body and, finally, the end is put through a ‘conversion press’, where the opening tab is riveted on. A typical factory is capable of producing a staggering 12,000 ends every minute.

Aside from a few markets in the middle east and far east, where old-fashioned ring-pull openings are still used, the vast majority of ends produced today employ a ‘stay-on tab’ (SOT). These are considered more environmentally friendly than throw-away ring-pulls, and somewhat safer. The precise size and shape of the opening varies according to what’s inside; beer cans for example tend to use a larger opening, shaped for better pouring into a glass, than you’ll find on a soft drink can.

One recent innovation making waves in the craft world is the 360 can, pioneered by manufacturer Crown. If you’ve never seen a 360 can (we’ve featured a few in the Beer52 box), when you pull the tab, the whole top comes away, essentially leaving an open metal cup.

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Originally created for the South African World Cup in 2010, the 360 can was intended primarily for use in sporting venues. It’s safer than a traditional can, as the large opening makes the contents clearly visible, is very quick to serve at the bar, and – from the brewers’ perspective – allows fans to walk around with a branded vessel, rather than having their beer decanted into an anonymous cup.

360 cans have really found their niche in the craft beer world though, particularly in the US and northern Europe. While brewers would always recommend drinking their beer from appropriate glassware for the full effect, 360 cans represent a compromise between the convenience of a can and the aroma-releasing sensory experience of an open glass.

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The second part of the can is, of course, the body. Again, this starts life as a coil of aluminium (or steel) sheet, usually around 1.5 meters wide. This is fed through a machine called a cupping press, which produces a wide, stubby bowl around half the target height of the can and double the diameter. It then goes into a body maker, where a ram extrudes (pushes and stretches) the aluminium into the familiar shape of a can body, complete with domed base. Despite their strength, at their thinnest point the walls of an aluminium can are finer than a human hair, yet are able to withstand a pressure equivalent to three times that of a standard car tyre. Finally, the cans are washed to remove oils and lubricants, and an inert lining is sprayed onto the inside, to prevent any risk of the metal tainting the contents.

From only a couple of basic shapes and sizes 20 years ago, there’s now much greater variety in the can world, particularly among soft drink producers looking to stand out on the supermarket shelf. This is one area where brewers have remained fairly conservative – possibly because they don’t want to risk being mistaken for soft drinks – continuing to favour standard-diameter 330ml, 440ml or 500ml cans.

The final part of the process is decoration. Unless they employ a plastic wrap (typically only used on very short canning runs) most cans are printed using a ‘dry offset’ process, in which up to eight coloured inks are applied onto a blanket and then transferred to the metal surface at astonishing speed. The printed cans are then passed through an oven to dry the ink, then necked and subjected to various quality control tests, and palletised for shipping to breweries.

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This is an area which has seen considerable innovation in recent years, however, as drinks makers in the beer world and beyond have sought new ways to get their product noticed in a crowded market.

Matt Twiss, marketing and business development director at manufacturer Crown Cork explains: “One area we’re seeing much more interest in is the use of decorative finishes, not just standard inks. Some look different to a standard glossy can, and some also have a tactile effect. For example, last year we produced an award-winning can for Island Records’ beers; you could see that had a textured matt finish, but it also felt very different in your hand. You could even run your finger over the surface and it would make a noise.

“Then there’s soft touch, which is an even more pronounced matt finish – almost rubbery – and other finishes which feel like orange skin. We’ve also developed a new finish called Emprint, which is a tactile print but also has a visual effect because light refracts off it.”

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There are also exciting developments afoot in the realm of interactivity, with thermochromic finishes that reveal a hidden message as you consume your chilled beer, or even photochromic inks, which change colour in sunlight. Matt believes such advances will allow craft brewers to push their design innovation even further in future.

“Because a lot of these breweries aren’t constrained by brand guidelines, they can really go and experiment,” he says. “We’ve got a pre-press graphics studio in Leicester and the craft guys love going there, because they turn up with the artwork, we can advise them and work with them to turn that into something that will be really striking on the finished can. Craft brewers have always pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved with the design, but now they’re also coming up with new and innovative ways of using advances in reprographics and print.”

Cans have become as closely associated with the craft beer movement as kegs, and as more international markets come to embrace their benefits, it seems likely they will continue to grow against traditional bottles. And, as they win the acceptance of gatekeepers such as CAMRA – which shocked the beer world by endorsing a can-conditioned beer (see page 22) – it feels like beer history is firmly on the side of the can.

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