But they are incredibly practical, and Can were amazing.
A little over two years ago we were looking at how we could get a small packaging line off the ground, and researching our options. Cask and kegs to bars and pubs are great, but we wanted our beer to be an option at family dinners, weeknight BBQs, and the beer sat in your fridge when you got home. We also really wanted to support the growing number of bottle shops that do ever greater work in getting delicious beer out even further and wider than before.
There were a few very small canning lines in use in the UK at in 2014, with glowing reports few and far between, and nothing of a small sized, yet professional quality bottling line. We stumbled upon Meheen, and their M6 filler, and even though a client list wasn’t forthcoming a little research online lead us to several excellent US breweries that seemed to be getting on just fine with theirs. We contacted Meheen’s UK representative Karl at Oasthouse Engineering/Beer 2 Bottle, whose order, install, operational, and service support has been excellent since, and placed our order.
Since we commissioned our M6 in Spring 2015 we’ve filled nearly 400,000 bottles, and learned a lot about running a small packaging line in the process. We’ve gone from runs of 2000 bottles every once in a while, to runs of 7500, more than a couple of times a week, but we’ve hit the limits of our compact M6 with our expansion coming up, and have to look again at how we package beer in a way that lets us reach lots of consumers around the country with a great quality beer.
Our biggest two issues with cans have always been how to protect such a large aperture from O2 and bacteria ingress during filling, and whether the agencies that qualify that the levels of BPA in can liners as safe can really be trusted. We had also never previously seen a canning line that we thought would put us in a better position than our M6 in terms of usability, reliability, or dissolved oxygen either. We’re really happy to say that seeing the ABE LinCan 60 in action at Five Points a week ago allayed our worries about bacteria and O2 ingress. After the cans are filled they rapidly progress towards the can end chute, where each can receives a can end – the first can at under 2 seconds from the end of filling, and the last (eleventh can) in under 5 seconds from the end of the fill cycle. Whilst there are concerns about BPA in can liners (in general, including food can liners), we’re increasingly confident that we’re not being mislead by any agency or manufacturer. As beer buyers ourselves, the liners have never put us off a purchase, or made us worry about our health.
When our new tanks arrive, in a little over a month or so, we’ll need to step up from packaging our current norm of around 85HL of brite beer a week (30% of which or so goes through our M6 at present), to up to 220HL a week over the course of up to six months (with a target of packaging 45% of packaged beer going into cans). We’re happy to announce that we’ve just ordered an ABE LinCan 60 from Vigo, capable of some pretty impressive D.O pick up for a small line, and importantly running at 3 times the speed of our M6. What’s also really exciting for us, is that we’ll get to package some beers into 500ml cans, and others into 330ml cans as we see fit, rather than having all our brite beer in just 330ml bottles as we do now.
There are other benefits to canning too: hermetical seals rather than vulnerable crown caps; half the box size and weight of bottles means half the cold store space and twice as much on each van delivery and pallet we ship; zero light striking effects; vastly improved portability; wider reach with cans readily accepted into music venues and festivals; near infinite recyclability; less cardboard use; lower environmental impact during can deliveries (pallets of empty cans weight very little) and shipments (full cans weight as little as 343g, where full bottles are around 650g).
I would be remiss not to mention that cans do have a few key disadvantages though: low acceptance in high end restaurants who are deeply averse to putting a can on their dining tables; poor tolerance of pressure (compared to bottles); and dissolved oxygen will continue to cause us concern until we regularly see the same readings we get from our little M6.
In line with how we currently style our bottles we’re not planning on ordering printed cans. Instead we’ll follow the likes of Other Half, Trillium, and Treehouse, with front facing labels, using the metal like we previously used glass. This will allow us to continue to feature commissioned artwork, list all our ingredients, and make as many different beer styles as we like – all things we’re deeply committed to!
Now, a question undoubtedly in your mind is when we’re thinking we’ll be able to make the switch? If current estimates from our supplier Vigo are accurate, and with a whole load of luck, we’ll be canning beer in October. We can’t wait to get a lot more of our beer out to you all, and both our forthcoming expansion and switch to cans will help us do exactly that.
Another question out there might be around how we feel about cans being seen as cool? Simply put, they’re not. They’re not as elegant as a bottle, nor are they a saviour for poorly made beer. What may be a marketing tool to others is just going to be a package type to us. We’ve never been held back by bottling our beer previously, nor are we going to be helped by canning our beer in the future, but what cans will do for us is help us get more beer out to more people, in more places, that’s it. (Although obviously we're going to work as much as we can on making them look amazing.)
Like any change in process there may be teething problems as we get used to running a different line. But with 18 months experience of running a small packaging line already behind us, we’re confident we’ve some quality checks already in place that ought to see us make a relatively smooth change over. If, however, you ever get a can from us that’s substandard, let us know, and we’ll make things right with you in the shortest time possible.