Yes We Can


It’s been a hell of a couple of weeks for me, and I imagine, for many of you too. The Olympics of course, plus some outrageously hot weather, the Great British Beer Festival, and all sorts of warm-weather based shenanigans to empty your wallet for. My GBBF coverage will find its way to Rum and Reviews Magazine shortly, but I thought I would share another recent and significant beer experience.
Having finally joined the British Guild of Beer Writers(mainly to further my own ambitions, but also because I have always wanted to be part of a Guild), I was invited to a pre-GBBF event at the marvellous Porterhouse in Covent Garden (reviewed by The Gentleman Drinker here) to try out a wide selection of American craft beer in *DUN DUN DUNNNN* cans. The beer was excellent, and it got me thinking about beer’s relationship with aluminium, and what the future could hold.
The humble can of beer has served us all tirelessly without complaint for decades, and yet, it has a serious image problem. We don’t see the can for what it is, we see it for what it isn’t.
“I said where’s the BEER aisle not the insipid, corporate, industrial…” James Watt  hated going to Tesco.
The 440ml or 500ml can is the default beer SKU in the ever-growing off-trade, and pallets of them dominate aisles of supermarkets across the land. However, despite its ubiquity, or perhaps because of it, people don’t see cans of beer as quality items. There is always a perceived cheapness to them. The industry has come a long way from having tinny-tasting tinnies, but the association somehow lingers on. Bottled beer has perceived class, quality and tradition. Then of course there is bottle-conditioned beer, one of beer’s most important expressions. Secondary fermentation creates fuller flavours, natural carbonation and opens up the wonderful world of aged beer. Even CAMRA will occasionally reach down from Olympus and deign to label bottle-conditioned ale with their logo, designating ‘properness’.
How are cans going to compete with that? In the UK’s current beer renaissance, how can the humble can share space with Kernel, BrewDog and Mikkeller in the hearts of beer geeks? Well, BrewDog have already bought into canning their beer, not in a big way, but both Punk IPA and 77 Lager are available. Surely, I hear you cry, that was just BrewDog doing one of their ‘clever ideas’ wasn’t it? Were we supposed to take them seriously?
Not a joke.
Well, BrewDog were simply emulating the American craft beer scene that they so desperately want to recreate here in the UK. American microbreweries (or rather, what they would call microbreweries) have been pioneering the idea of quality beer in cans for years, and I think it could be the way forward in the UK too.
Why? Well, for one thing there’s the benefits to the brewer. Cans are cheaper, easier to produce, and easier to store and deliver. That could theoretically mean that smaller brewers find it easier to get their beer to more pubs and shops.  
There is also the fact that consumers would enjoy a lower price for their beer, and that it’s easier for them to carry home too. More importantly, they could carry home more of it. As we all know, beer in cans gets colder quicker than beer in glass bottles, and there is absolutely no risk of UV light damage or ‘skunking’. Aluminium cans are arguably easier to recycle, and they are generally more practical and functional than glass bottles. As an example, recall how many times you have had to have sadface-inducing mainstream keg lager in a plastic cup at gigs and festivals because they can’t sell decent bottles of beer? Now imagine being at a gig or festival, strolling up to the bar and seeing some of these beauties:
 As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to sample a selection of canned American craft beer recently, and on the basis of what I tasted, an aluminium-coated future does not frighten me in the least.
I got to taste everything from the big-hitting mainstays like Sierra Nevada to smaller, kookier outfits such as 21stAmendment, Maui Brewing and Caldera. Of course, in American there’s no such thing as small, but these producers give us an idea of how smaller brewers have bought into the idea of canned craft beer, and they’re doing it well.
Something slightly random but important that stuck with me afterwards is that cans have the better ‘opening noise’ than bottles. That sharp percussive crack and hiss flicks a switch in your brain that gets your mouth watering. What’s that about? 
As you can see above, with a change in packaging comes a change in labelling. With cans, the label ismost of the packaging, and most canned US craft beers have really eye-catching labels. There’s garish, gaudy colour schemes that remind you of vintage 60’s music festival posters, star-spangled red-white-and-blue palettes, or stark contrasting colour schemes with stencilled lettering and surreal art. They’re striking, they capture the eccentricity of the beer and its brewers, and most of all, they look good.
  
Sometimes they look a little too good. A few, including Caldera IPA (above) resemble some kind of tropical fruit drink more than a strong beer.
It all comes back to quality. If the quality of the beer can be assured, then eventually beer connoisseurs will be won over. It doesn’t mean an end to bottles by any means. Rather, bottled beer, and bottle-conditioned beer in particular, will become even more special, even more rare and even more desirable. Cans will become the ‘norm’; beer of good quality to be enjoyed without fuss. Bottles will become valued possessions, encouraging more people to age their beer, and encouraging brewers to create beers that are designed to be aged.
Imagine a world where this could be even more amazing than it already is.
Ultimately, true beer nerds connoisseurs will pour the beer into a glass before drinking it, whatever the original vessel. The quality is not an issue – the beer tastes really, really good. The packaging is sharp and exciting, and I think it moves beer away from hefty, masculine pints and big bottles. I think cans make unusual beer like Coconut Porter, Black IPA and the like more accessible and less exclusive.
What do you think? Can you see yourself drinking beers like those above? Is this inevitable, and what place will cask ale and bottle-conditioned beer have in such a future? I’d like to know your thoughts.

Carlsberg and the C Word

Kraft!

Carlsberg Sweden have announced they will be launching a, and I quote, ‘craft-style’ lager this year. It’s hard not to be cynical when a large company enters a player into a growing trend somewhat late in the game (see Stella and cider). After all, there’s nothing connoisseurs like more than when a large mainstream company launch something that shamefully imitates or seeks to imitate a niche product, right? Right?

‘Lawn Mower’ will be a 4.8% lager developed by Carlsberg in the backyard (ooh, so rustic) of its Falcon Brewery in Falkenberg. The ‘Backyard Brewery’ is the latest in long line of craft brewery pilot plants opened by larger brewers in the last few years. In the UK, Molson Coors have had a pilot plant (based out of the old White Shield Brewery) for a few years, and regional ale producers Brains and Thwaites have both built a ‘craft brewery’ recently. The aim for any brewer who does this is the same: to produce and test out small batches of left-of-field beers, to build long-term brands out of successful brews, and to improve their reputation among beer geeks.

This is all well and good. Big brewers want to have a slice of the growing ‘craft beer’ trend, and win over people that think they’re only interested in making common denominator beers. Fine. And Sweden’s craft beer scene is ripe for the picking. In fact, most of Scandinavia is undergoing a beer renaissance. BrewDog sales figures indicate that most of their exported beer goes to Sweden, and brewers like Mikkeller and Nøgne ø are darlings of the UK and US craft beer scenes.

So with that in mind, why in the name of all that’s holy and good have they described it as:

“dry hopped with Amarillo and Cascade to give it a grassy aroma.”

Bad news for beer-loving hayfever sufferers

I mean, I get it: ‘grassy’, ‘lawn mower’, but there’s several things wrong with that sentence. First, what is a grassy aroma, why is it appealing, and why would you build an entirely new brand around it? I understood a grassy aroma to typically come from lightly hopped lagers and ales, and an actual ‘fresh-cut grass’ aroma is relatively rare, usually buried or distorted by stronger, sweeter scents from the malt. If that’s what you’re going for, fine, but it’s not an aroma that speaks to experimental palates used to hop bombs and barley wines.

It’s also worth clarifying, in case you didn’t already know, that Amarillo and Cascade hops are the kind of big, brash, tropical fruit-scented behemoths that are found in so many American IPAs. They don’t have a grassy aroma. They’re bursting with orange and grapefruit, and taste like it too.

Not grass.

So in conclusion, they are either a) making the beer completely wrong, b) describing it completely wrong, or c) both.

It would seem that Carlsberg have hired one of those beer marketing people that say really weird, nonsensical things. You know, like ‘Brewed traditionally for flavour and taste’ or ‘the beer’s carbonation gives it great, refreshing aftertaste’ or they think Maris Otter is a kind of hops. These people should have been hounded out of beer marketing about seven years ago and forced to write reclining chair ads in the Daily Express.

When I saw ‘Carlsberg to make craft-style lager’ and ‘amarillo and cascade’ I simply assumed they were going for some kind of a Brooklyn Lager rip-off. It’s a safe bet that people will like it and it wouldn’t be too hard to achieve. To be honest, I still suspect this to be the case, and they’ve simply got some utter berk to explain the beer to the media. The same spokesman, clearly some kind of android, goes on to say:


“When we tried some of those high quality brews, we saw an opportunity to bring the concept to market,”

and:

“It (the Backyard Brewery) is not a new brewery, it’s a virtual concept where we leverage our newly-renovated development brewery to make room for creativity and passion.”

We are to assume there was previously no room for passion or creativity at Falkenberg Brewery, and that new ideas were hunted down and shot like the dogs they are. The evidence is in Carlsberg’s “varied portfolio” today. Impressive stuff. Three, count ’em, THREE lagers.

If Carlsberg really want to impress craft beer lovers, they need look no further than the beers they were making a few decades ago. The likes of Carlsberg 47 (Vienna lager), Carlsberg Gamle (Munich lager) and Gammel Porter, among others, were still being made in the brewer’s main headquarters in Denmark as recently as the 1990’s, and a large brewer resurrecting old brands (like Molson Coors did with Worthington White Shield) is generally more impressive than turning out a cynical knock-off.

They could maybe leave the old trademark off though…

I can see why they are desperate to diversify but they should look a little closer to home if they want to gain any credibility, which appears to be another C word they have no concept of the meaning of.

Do these kind of moves by large brewers rub you the wrong way? Does anybody know if those old Carlsberg brews are still available? What’s the story with swastika trademark? Do you like the smell of cut grass? Leave a comment.