Metal heads: the rise of canned beers

20 March, 2015

The Llanelli & County Guardian was the unlikely chronicler of a landmark moment in brewing history. On December 3, 1935, it reported the first successful commercial packaging of a beer in cans in the UK, by the town’s Felinfoel brewery.

Local rival Buckley’s took out a full-page ad to point out that it had also canned a pale ale but that it was viewing it as an experiment and proceeding with “persistence and caution” before putting its efforts in front of the public.

By the end of the century, the can had become the default packaging choice for beers across the UK and the rest of the globe, especially for mainstream lagers and in-home consumption.

But the perceived authenticity and longer history of glass bottles remained the vogue for what beer buffs and the brewing industry regarded as higher quality ales and speciality beers.

Cans’ critics claimed they were susceptible to oxidisation through broken seals, prone to impart a metallic taste to their contents and, well, just looked a bit rubbish.

But like many aspects of the modern drinks market, canned beer is having something of a renaissance.

While the first seeds of canned beer excitement focused on south Wales, the latter day focus has shifted to north and east London, and brewers there are proceeding with persistence, if considerably less caution than Buckley’s did almost 80 years ago.

Fourpure threw its lot in with metal at the start of last year when it put its entire core range into cans as its sole packaged option.

The fledgling Beavertown brewery started playing about with cans last summer and has decommissioned its bottling line.

The longer-established Camden Town has also embraced cans, though it hasn’t been so fundamental in its conversion, keeping a two-pronged approach.

All three were trumpeting the benefits of cans at the recent Craft Beer Rising festival in London, among them freshness, speed of chilling, portability and the removal of the problem of heat and light strike that attends glass – especially flint and green bottles.

Beavertown also points to the more flexible canvas that the wrap- round on cans gives for the sci-fi labels of its beers, and which have been an intrinsic part of its rise to on- trend status in the craft beer world.

It’s not just UK microbrewers who are milking the trend either. A Craft Work promotion in Wetherspoon’s pubs features 33cl cans of Vedett (Belgium), Budvar (Czech Republic), Sagres (Portugal) and a range of beers from Sixpoint of New York.

Beavertown owner Logan Plant says: “Our beers have a lot of hops in them, and hops don’t like light so cans are perfect for them.

“We don’t want our beers to lose their freshness or vibrancy and go stale.

“There’s a stigma that cans are about cheap six-packs but the bottom line is that they’re the perfect dispense method for beer and eliminate any of the problems down the road with oxygen and light.

“I thought it would cannibalise our bottle sales but we’ve sold just as much bottled beer and the cans on top of that.”

Peter Sherry at the Beer Hive in Edinburgh is a convert. “It is not a fad,” he asserts. “Businesses that have not looked at the potential in adding cans to their range should do so immediately.

“The sales figures are not the only thing that backs this up. The beer itself so far has been outstanding.”

As well as freshness, Sherry believes portability and ease- of-opening are appealing, with customers buying cans to take to parks and cinemas.

He thinks they work best for IPAs and highly-hopped pilsners but notices them increasingly used for craft brewers’ dark beers.

Getting shoppers to try beers is key to growing sales, he adds. “As with most exciting new things in the beer world, word moves very slowly on the mainstream market,” he says, “so we are still here on the front line explaining that there will be no metallic taste to the beer as that rumour is still circulating. But this is easily quashed by the customer’s first sip.”

Others take a more direct view about why the modern craft beers going into cans are receiving widespead acclaim, whereas the landfill lagers of yesteryear didn’t. “The main reason was it was shit beer going into them,” says Colin Arthur of the Rugby Tap in Rugby.

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