APRIL FOOLS’ DAY: Can-tillon?

The future?
The future? Designs for Cantillon’s new packaging.

 

It’s still sinking in, to be honest with you.

The first time I visited Cantillon nearly two years ago, it was breathtaking. It was everything people said it would be, and more, because there is a level of sensory interaction with the place beyond smell, sight and sound that is hard to put into words. And that’s before you taste the beers themselves. All of them, including the fresh and utterly mystifying lambic, were incredible. Incredible because they provided new flavour experiences but also left questions. What is that flavour? What does this remind me of? Is this still even beer?

Like the best pieces of art, so much of what is great about Cantillon is unspoken; undeclared; nuanced and yet, vibrant. Jean Van Roy presides over one of the most highly-regarded breweries in the world. Why then, would Cantillon need to do anything differently? Why would Van Roy, one of the world’s most respected brewers and an undeniable master of his craft, need to change processes there?

“America” must surely be the simple answer. Bottles of Cantillon’s beers do not travel very far, and with a massive (and growing) population of drinkers interested in craft beer and unique, sour styles, the homegrown varieties are no longer enough. The lucrative export market, denied to Cantillon for so many years, is now finally within reach.

When I received the email yesterday from a slightly nervous man from the “Ni-san” PR agency, wondering if I could look at some proofs of designs sent to him by his client, a ‘very known Belgium brewery’, I had concerns. He seemed reluctant to show me any images without me agreeing to ‘consult’ on them. I said fine, I’ll help however I can, and the next email I received astonished me.

Cans. From Cantillon. The man had found my blog posts about craft beer in cans and thought I was a good sounding board for what would prove to be the early designs for Cantillon’s new canned beers.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Immediately my mind ran away with itself, picturing slabs of Fou’foune in my fridge, but no offer of samples was forthcoming. Indeed, the entire thing was over as suddenly as it began. A subsequent email just twenty minutes later begged me to delete the previous one with the images attached, said there was no longer ‘obligation for services’ and that I should act as though the entire thing had never happened.

How could I? Especially since, unknowingly, the PR had left the text from a previous email exchange in the footer, namely the text “NO DO NOT SHOW THESE IMAGES THIS IS EMBARGO UNTIL 1/4 12PM – J”

J? Jean?

I suppose we’ll find out at 12pm.

Yes We Can: Part Deux

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After a period of intense, blog-abandoningly-busy writing, I am back in the saddle.

On Saturday, I attended the Hells Can Party at Camden Town Brewery, where their Hells Lager was launched in cans, at last. I say ‘at last’ because it feels like a long time since I first spied Camden’s small canning plant, and I had hoped to spend the summer with a few crates of Hells, or even USA Hells, in cans. Unfortunately, it took a lot of time (and as I am led to believe, extremely hard work) to get the Hells cans launched. Some noted the oddness of launching a canned lager this close to winter, but when it’s this good, I say why the Hells not?

Camden Town’s bold, sharp branding is perfectly suited for cans, and their artist Mr Bingo has really outdone himself on the Hells can design. A straight adaptation of the Hells Lager bottle label would have been more than enough to impress anyone, but the intensely and eccentrically detailed madness oozing from the Hells can label is something glorious to behold. Packaging aside, the beer inside is the same world-beating, ever-refreshing and fantastic-tasting lager. Once I’d poured it into a half pint mug, I must have finished it in about four or five incredible gulps, a few of which washed down a wonderful pulled pork bun from the lovely man at Prairie Fire BBQ. By eck, even the flipping Mayor (of Camden, sorry Boris fans) showed up.

Anyway, I’ve written about my feelings on cans before, but in a nutshell (for those of you who don’t like being told to click on links when you’re right in the bloody middle of reading something), I think they are the future for packaged Good Beer. Bottles will be seen as premium and special; and bottle-conditioned beers will be treated with even more reverence as a result. Fresh, hoppy beers, however, especially those that have travelled some distance, almost always benefit from the total protection that a can provides.

What’s needed is a few other small UK breweries to take the plunge and get canning. It really needs to suit their image and branding, too. The Kernel, for example, would never can their beer and I wouldn’t want them to. There are some brewers however, whose branding and beers would be fantastic in canned form. Here’s my wishlist:

1. Magic Rock Brewing – Tell me – go on, just try – that Magic Rock’s madcap labels wouldn’t look sensational on a shiny can, especially the metallic ‘shiny football sticker’ labels given to their more limited beers. As for the freshness of those hoppy monsters, well, just imagine cracking open a can of Human Cannonball or Magic 8 Ball and let me know when you’ve finished drooling.

2. Tiny Rebel  Brewing Co – A brewery that’s going from strength to strength, Tiny Rebel are just the kind of brewer to embrace canned craft beer. Their labels could even make the cans look like the spray paint used by their hoodlum teddy bear mascot. Just the thought of beers like Hadouken and Full Nelson tasting brewery-fresh already has me all excited.

3. Oakham Ales – There’s something about Oakham’s beer labels that already reminds me of cans, as they often use a bright, rectangular image that could fit onto one just so. I’d love to be able to come home to a fridge full of cheeky, hop-faced cans of Citra, or, be still my beating heart, Green Devil IPA.

4. Beavertown Brewery – Beavertown’s bottled beers are almost always bottle-conditioned as far as I can tell, but if they could pull off can-friendly versions of Black Betty, Gamma Ray and 8 Ball, I think their branding would look even cooler than it already does on their bottles. Imagine cans of Beavertown at your next barbecue – surely a dream come true.

5. Meantime Brewing Co – It’s surprising in many ways that this old stalwart (over ten years old, people, that’s ancient) of the London brewing scene hasn’t dabbled in cans. They have the quality, consistency and capacity. Cans might not somehow suit the brewery’s schizophrenic mix of innovation and tradition, but really, they should.

I think the main issues, as is always the case with canning, is whether the brewers have the capacity and demand. BrewDog famously outsourced the brewing and canning of Punk IPA cans to Thwaites, but following the building of their new brewery, have taken canning of their beers back home.

Given that a brewer based under a railway arch (admittedly that goes for a lot of London brewers) can pull this off, surely plenty more can, too. What do you think? Is there a brewer in the UK who should be canning their beer and they aren’t? Or is it all a Craft Wanker fly-by-night flight of fancy, best left to them bloody Americans and that? Perhaps, but as Craig Heap notes, the UK has a tradition of canned beer innovation. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Coming Soon: Camden Versus Odell

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Now here’s a thing for the style purists: a quite literal mash-up of Camden Hells Lager and Odell Cutthroat Porter into a 7% black monster. Black Lager Porter? Blagorter? Anyway, this hybrid madness was being brewed at Camden Town Brewery on Friday. I went down for the afternoon, and whatever it is they’re brewing, it smelled pretty amazing. Doug Odell himself was in the building, and might be the nicest brewer anyone has ever met. Some American craft brewers come across as suspiciously PR-slick or boisterously brash. Doug has the persona of a kindly uncle, happy to crack open a beer and talk shop with people he’s barely known five minutes.

Anyway, for those of you still trying to get your head around the Blagorter concept (and I include myself in that group), you can get a first taste of the finished beer at the end of June. After all, it is partly a lager, so it needs a good six weeks in tank to mature properly. Given how excellent both Odell and Camden’s beer are, I suspect that this will be something very special, and will sell out very quickly.

Speaking of special things in the pipeline, soon we will be able to enjoy Camden Town Brewery beer in cans. That’s right, more quality canned beer for the UK, which is great news. Mark Dredge was kind enough to do some tours of the brewery on Friday, showing off new bits and pieces, including a compact canning line. Camden Hells in cans will hopefully be a reality by June, with USA Hells also in the running for being canned. I think the Camden branding will look fantastic on a can, and I’m thirsty just thinking about the prospect of a summer involving cans of USA Hells…

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Back in the brewery bar, there was even more excellent beer available than usual. Odell IPA, Lugene milk chocolate stout, Myrcenary Double IPA, 5 Barrel Pale Ale and more besides were in the fridges, whilst a keg of Odell’s Friek sour was put on tap against Camden’s own King Crimson. Friek is a sensational wild ale that is both raspberry tart and strawberry sweet. King Crimson meanwhile had a sublime, wine-like texture, and a rich, smooth body of red fruit and sourness that made it far easier to drink than it had any right to be.

After ordering another mind-bendingly delicious Boss Hogg from the Dogfather stand outside (I don’t have a problem, okay?), I thought it would be rude not to try a couple of other Odell beers. The Five Barrel Pale Ale washed the hot dog down nicely, working almost like liquid Turkish Delight to sooth the heat and enhance the sweetness of relish and spice. After that, the exquisite Myrcenary IPA, named for its recipe designed to include the highest amounts of bitterness compound Myrcene, cleansed my palate with its indulgent, oily-slick combination of pine and pith. It also has a fantastic label – one of my all-time favourites – depicting some kind of Olde Timey hop robber making his getaway on a motorcycle with sidecar.

I also got some bottles to take home: a bottle of the Lugene milk chocolate stout and the tasty-looking Red Ale. And, naturally, I filled my Gentleman’s Beer Conveyance with USA Hells. I’ll put up reviews of those bottled beers later in the week.

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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.