Canned beer turns 80 this week but still, for many, the very thought of beer in a can conjures up images of listless lagers favoured by lairy lads or super strength brews consumed by a less than discerning park bench crowd – miles away from the suave sophistication of continental bottled beers or the warm reassurance of real ale. The continued rise of craft breweries however, and their championing of the can, could see all this about to change.
It was the early 1900s when American brewers first hit on the idea of canning beers, but the challenge of creating a metal container that could withstand the pasteurisation process, as well as the pressures of carbonisation, proved problematic. And then of course came prohibition.
But on 24 January 1935 this goal was realised when Krueger Cream Ale became the first beer to be sold in a can. A further 36 American breweries went on to can their beers that year, as well as the Felinfoel Brewery in Wales which was the first outside the US.
The next few decades saw much experimentation as brewers tried out flat tops which needed to be punctured by a can opener, cone tops sealed with caps just like bottles, aluminium which was first used by Coors in the 1950s, the introduction of the ring pull in 1965 and, perhaps most importantly, a water-based lining to get rid of the much bemoaned metallic tang.
Despite these advancements, and obvious advantages over bottles, such as keeping out oxygen and light (two of beer’s biggest enemies), cans garnered a negative reputation that has been difficult to shake.
Thankfully a new breed of brewer is embracing aluminium with abandon, and doing so in style, with the humble can finally getting the kind of design love previously reserved for bottles.
And just as the first beer cans made their way to the UK from across the Atlantic 80 years ago, this trend currently making its mark on the British beer scene also has its roots in the US, with Oskar Blues Brewery’s Dale’s Pale Ale the first craft beer to be canned rather than bottled back in 2002.
Since then sales of craft beer cans in the US have soared, reportedly climbing 89 per cent last year alone compared to a nine per cent rise in bottle sales, while in the UK, which had been somewhat slower in uptake, growth has been even more pronounced of late, with sales up by more than 250 per cent in the first half of 2014.
Last year the UK even had its first Indie Beer Can competition, run by independent brewers body Siba along with Can Makers – the trade body for beverage can manufacturers – which attracted entries from more than 100 brewers.
The managing director of Siba, Mike Benner, explains cans offer brewers a new and exciting way to bring their beers to market, and that it is “undoubtedly a format that will continue to grow in the UK, as it has in the US”.
BrewDog’s James Watt meanwhile says it was a “no brainer” for the Aberdeenshire-based brewer and bar operator to get into cans, knowing from the get go “canning was never going to compromise flavour or quality of our beers”.
The increased demand for craft beer has meant more potential for brewers to can their beer, Watt tells us, and in the next few years he expects to see more craft brewers add canned beers to their offering. He also reveals that BrewDog has invested in a state of the art canning system at its brewery, which should be up and running in-house early this year. “You can expect not just more cans from BrewDog, but a wider range in cans too.”
BrewDog recently underwent a shift in its packaging design and now boasts a suite of eye-catching cans, but it is far from the only UK craft brewer showing a keen interest in graphic design, with London’s Beavertown Brewery, for one, regularly cited as a great example of beer can design, while the Camden Town Brewery has worked with artists such as Mr Bingo to create its Hells cans and Stuart Patience to create its IHL cans.
Alex Troncoso, head brewer at Camden Town, effuses “we love our cans” before offering a whole host of reasons why, including “they cool down super fast and don’t break in your bag, they take up less space in the fridges of restaurants and bars because you can stack them, they fit perfectly into the festival drinking scene, and, for busy urban cities like London where so many people rely on public transport, picking up a case of cans is so much lighter to get from the store to your fridge”. Not least, however, he says “they look great”.
“Craft breweries have set out to change people’s views on how beer should taste, so why not do it with packaging as well?”
Over at global design agency Jones Knowles Ritchie, they know more than a thing or two about can design, having styled tins for no less than Guinness, Boddington’s and Budweiser, and creative director Sean Thomas explains that, on a purely graphic level, “cans give you a 360° canvas to print on which, if you're a start-up brand looking to get noticed, is a huge plus”.
“Every inch of the design can be used to say something about who you are and what you stand for, hence why I think we are seeing so many craft beers adopt them of late.”
Christian Helms, whose brand design studio Helms Workshop is behind the designs of some of the US’s most celebrated and eye-catching craft beer cans including Austin Beerworks, Fullsteam Brewery and Modern Times Beer, continues this thought by explaining that where bottles “generally used to hold designs constrained within the dimensions of a paper label, cans offer a more holistic vehicle for sharing the heart of the brand with consumers”.
“Cans offer a wide open playing field for a host of aesthetics and approaches, and designers are really excited about the opportunity offered by the relatively recent growth in craft beer.”
Helms agrees the craft beer can has become a coveted job for designers and that everyone wants a shot. And with the way the industry is growing, who knows, maybe they’ll all get one.
This feature was first published in the 21 January issue of The Drum.
Below is a selection of some of our favourite craft beer can designs. Know of any better? Let us know in the comments.