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.

Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival 2013

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The Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival (GWBCF), Cardiff’s annual celebration of all things great in Welsh beer and cider, is a very different beast to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). For one thing, it is far more staunchly patriotic. Only a handful of casks came from breweries outside Wales, and even then they were from breweries not far away (like Thornbridge). There was a foreign beer bar, yes, but a much smaller and more focused affair than at GBBF. Another difference was that the foreign beer bar was being run by a local beer retailer, Cardiff’s Bottle Shop, giving it more of a ‘friendly local bar’ kind of atmosphere.

That same atmosphere extended to the festival as a whole. The beer and cider was served from a single, large, U shape of bars, with tables and chairs on either side of the U and stalls scattered elsewhere, which just about conjured the impression of ‘Wales’ Biggest Pub’. The Motorpoint Arena is by no means a picturesque location, but it fulfilled its purpose admirably. Only on Friday night did the place start to feel overpopulated, and even then it created a lively buzz and atmosphere that it failed to recapture the following day, as the best beers ran dry.

One major disappointment was the glassware.  Whilst I appreciate glassware ramps up costs considerably, there was only one available: a half-pint glass with a rather crudely-drawn and distinctly alligator-like dragon on it. Fair enough, you don’t want to be drinking pints all day, but when many of the beers you try are either middling or high-strength, you don’t want to gulp down a whole half-pint of them either. An extra notch for a third measurement, or a multiple-notched pint glass (like at GBBF), would make a big difference, allowing people to drink a wider variety of beers, spend more time and more money in the process. My only other major gripe was the festival’s programme, which was a combination of vague, useless tasting notes (hoppy this, malty that), sad, mournful adverts and jarring references to death, global warming and the Nanny State (seriously). None of us expect a masterpiece, but it was strange enough to distract from the quality of the event overall.

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And what of the beer, anyway? Both my host Craig Heap and myself had hoped to find some unknown, soon-to-be-megastar from the smaller breweries; another Tiny Rebel. The truth was, few breweries could hold a torch to Wales’ new darling brewery, and those that did were old faces. Solid, innovative, yet dependable Otley, alongside Brains and its Craft Brewery range, as well as Celt Experience and Brecon had the biggest presence, and also the best beers on tap. My main highlights were Brains’ Craft Stars and Stripes, a zingy, crisp and zesty wheat beer with US hops; the rare (on cask) Otley O6 Porter, a classy and masterful balance of coffee and chocolate; and Tiny Rebel’s one-off barrel-aged beers, including the outrageously good Kentucky Whiskey cask Urban IPA and the decadent Grand Regal Stout aged in Morgan’s Spiced barrels.

Whilst it was disappointing not to come across great beers from smaller or newer breweries, the brewers of the beers mentioned above are clearly the powerful and exciting face of modern Welsh beer. Tiny Rebel took all three medals in the Champion Beer of Wales competition (with Dirty Stop Out, Fubar and Urban IPA), and arguably with good reason. I personally feel there is a fair amount of cheekiness (or rebelliousness you might say) in entering three different IPAs and a stout in four different categories, but they won fair and square. If CAMRA’s categories allow an IPA to win in the Barley Wine category, then so be it. (see EDIT below: Tiny Rebel’s beers were chosen, not entered)

Rhymney, Purple Moose, Brains, Bullmastiff, Facer’s and Breconshire also took category prizes (Brains’ Rev James perhaps being a surprise winner), but this year was Tiny Rebel’s for the taking. What will be really interesting is next year’s GWBCF. Will the booming Welsh beer scene sustain another new generation of brewers, inspired by the likes of Tiny Rebel? Will Brains Craft Brewery still be going, and what will they have made in another year’s time? Will anyone try (or dare) to open a rival T-shirt shop or jerky stand? I’m looking forward to finding out next year. To your very good health, Wales.

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EDIT: James B (@Jamesbwxm) has helpfully clarified that brewers do not submit their own beers for judging for the Champion Beer of Wales. In fact, he can only recollect one time when this has been the case (for the inaugural Champion Beer of North Wales this year). Finalists are selected from festival winners and tasting panels over the year.