Tuesday 27 January 2015

Metalman in a metal can

When the whole talk of craft beer in a can started, a few years ago, I honestly thought it wouldn't take off. It's just crude to serve beer from a can. Uncouth. Totally unrefined and certainly not the thing that a respectable craft brewer would promote.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. My first realisation came about when I was having a bit of a twitter rant about the subject when well respected brewer type from NZ, Kelly Ryan, listed a few plus points of the format. It seems that oxygen take-up is much lower, headspace less, weight of the packaged product certainly lower per ml and metal cans significantly more recyclable than glass. I remember the put-down quite clearly. "there you go Dave, made a dumb-ass out of yourself again" I thought.

Last year we went over to Ireland and brewed with Metalman. Great fun was had making Yerba and Ireland is such a lovely place. The folks in Waterford are grand, too.

I remember GrĂ¡inne and Tim were looking at canning, and had already made up their minds back then to by-pass completely the idea of packaging into bottle. I have been watching their progress, quietly from a distance, it has to be said with a little bit of envy. I learn today that they have finally got their machine installed and are pushing out cans of their fine Pale Ale.

I still have a few concerns. The whole business of ensuring a gas tight seal, and the fact that the beer surface is so much larger before sealing than with bottle worries me. It doesn't quite stack up in my mind that the risk of oxygen take-up is actually less. I am left to assume that the real danger is from gas diffusion through the seal. In bottles there is a hard and inflexible surface of the glass against which a plastic seal is forced. The seal isn't perfect and despite the CO2 being at pressure there is still a movement of oxygen molecules which are smaller than carbon dioxide molecules. (32 grams per mole, compared to 44). The crimped metal to metal surfaces once must assume are a much tighter seal.

There are other problems, which I wonder how canning brewers manage. For a start, we get between a few hundred and 20,000 labels printed at a time. We get 18,050 bottles delivered per order. We do have to buy branded caps in lots of 110,000 (Next up it's green for us) - but we don't have to have huge stocks of very much.

Cans, now, as best I can tell they are printed in lots of at least 100,000 at a time. That is a shit-load. I know what 18,050 glass bottles look like. 5-6 times that is going to need a big warehouse, and that would be for each and every product. At least we don't have to buy our bottles with the label already on them. We're bottling tomorrow, I will probably decide which beer when I get in to the brewery, safe in the knowledge that the bottles don't care. It only takes a few minutes of swearing to get the labelling machine to work properly.

And then there is the little nightmare of paying for the damn things. Cash-flow, it's a real bastard, really it is. Just in time is the way forward, not having a great big warehouse.

However, as a firm convert to the idea of microbreweries pushing out keg, with various advantages, why should any format be the preserve of big breweries? If cans provide a route to market for smaller breweries then why shouldn't we have a slice of that particular cake?

Cans are indeed light. Around 30% of the weight of our bottles is glass. This becomes significant when considering transport. Whether posting our from our webshop, of for that matter any of the on-line places you can get our beer, there are weight restrictions that impact on the costs of getting it to the customer. We can only put a maximum of 1,200kg on a pallet. If a third is glass there is less room for beer.

The recycling thing is much more important though. Metal is relatively easy to recycle. Cans can easily be sorted into aluminium and ferrous with simple magnetism. They can be crushed and transported in an economic form.

Glass is harder to sort. Apparently there is technology that can deal with it, but one can assume this has to be done before any crushing occurs. For certain it's much more complex than just waving a magnet next to the stuff. The nearest place to Cumbria that can automatically sort glass I believe is in Liverpool.

We have to pay about the same to send any waste glass into re-cycling as we do sending it into the land-fill route. At the other end I am told by our glass supplier that they cannot get enough waste re-cyclable glass. My local re-cycling entrepreneur tells me it is the transport that kills the economics. All down to weight again, you see.

So, is Hardknott going to start canning? I know Thornbridge have decided to stear clear for now. I'm keeping an open mind, although more and more these days, on a whole range of subjects, it seems this is the best strategy, at least up until the point of saying "yes".


Simon said...

I'm all for the canning revolution. Gamma Ray, for example, has gone from strength to strength. The can just seems to suit it.

Not sure how it all works, but I know that Fourpure can the beer, then label the cans. That might help mitigate the minimum order issues?

Unknown said...

I did send an email to the Metalman guys asking how they deal with it. However, they are so busy getting everything going (and if they have any sense, celebrating the fact that they got it working) that they haven't had time to answer my questions.

However, as far as I can gather, they are also looking at some sort of label for one-off short run beers.

StringersBeer said...

I still haven't seen a full lifecycle comparison of can v. bottle, so I couldn't decide even if I had the choice. They do look neat though, and (more the point I guess) they're not your father's beer bottle. Course, being the age I am, they are my father's can of long life.

Unknown said...

I have come to the conclusion, as far as the quality of the beer is concerned, that it is mainly down to the quality of the beer inside the container, rather then the container itself.

Of course for cans, the smallest microbrewer is unlikely to be able to access the technology so easily. This does mean that for the smallest, most boutique of beers, bottle or drought will still be king.

Yvan said...

I'm not convinced on the environmental cred. If fully recycled then it sounds great... but how good is the recycling chain? I grew up in a place where bauxite mining was a big issue... it is an energy-intensive, messy, nature-destroying, ground-poisoning industry. If the cans themselves are definitely made from recycled aluminium then that would be a thing worth advertising (I've not seen it mentioned, just that they can be recycled...?)

Nor am I convinced on the DO2 cred yet... as per Thornbridge Rob's article. I just hope the folk getting into canning buy good enough kit & adopt good enough processes, rather than jump on a "canning bandwagon" with little thought. (I've no evidence this is happening, I've mostly heard/seen/tasted good things so far.)

However there are things I do like about cans.

* They're totally opaque.
* They're light.
* They're compact.
* They're robust.
* They chill quickly.
* They stack!

From my day to day perspective they're easy to handle. Much appreciated.

They really do tend to look rather good too, although I'm not so keen on some of the labelling I've seen out there. That's down to taste I suppose.

Labelling: yes, some breweries (including Fourpure) have bought blank cans for special/limited run beers. They just stick labels on. Full wrap-around ones I've seen look fine, you don't even notice until you pick it up.

I gather that's what the strategy for the "mobile canning line" setups will be. I am aware of at least two of these businesses being started up - and a couple of breweries keen on their services.

So perhaps access isn't that impossible for smaller breweries... canning comes to you? Might even be better than contract bottling?

Yvan said...

One of those mobile canners seems fairly definite: http://themthatcan.com/

So Hardknott inna can for 2015? :)

Hop-trifecta of: Code Black, Azimuth, Infra Red I reckon.

(The other mobile canning setup is just vague rumour, and may in fact be the same as the one above.)