In the 11 years since American craft brewer Oskar Blues began canning its craft beer, the trend has caught on big time in the U.S. with hundreds of other craft breweries following suit. They’ve been attracted by the portability of the metal container, its lighter weight for transport (thereby saving dollars and the environment at the same time), and its unbeatable barrier protection. Once consumers got over the initial shock of seeing a craft brew in a can, they seem to have had no trouble embracing the package if continued sales increases are any signal.
But is the “canned beer apocalypse,” as Oskar Blues famously calls it, just an American phenomenon or is it also spreading to Europe?
The answer is a little bit of both. While European craft brewers are aware of the American canning trend, and there are some early adopters, they are not yet following it en masse.
According to the global beverage research firm Canadean, some fundamental differences in the craft brewing scene in Europe are—at least for now—holding back canning from gaining any significant traction. For one thing, the use of specialty glass bottles are more entrenched in Europe’s beer culture. “At the moment, the glass container, which often uses a brewery custom-designed (rather than a stock) bottle for speciality beers, is an integral part of the brand positioning and image and to be honest we cannot see them moving to a standard shape can very easily as it goes against this niche, added value image,” explains Kevin Baker, account director, alcoholic beverages at Canadean.
Also, the European craft beer scene is more fragmented, divided into many different countries with regional brewers and different languages. “The volumes involved for a typical specialty brewer in Europe, would be significantly lower than at a similar specialty brewer in the USA—and probably usually too low to make filling in beverage cans sensible and economic,” says Baker.
“In practice,” he continues, “this means that (for the moment at least) it is mainly the large volume national and international brands in cans , whilst the smaller specialty beers are nearly always in glass. That said, we are sure the big beverage can makers would like to target the shorter run market if it was technically feasible and viable and we believe a few of them have been looking into the technology for a number of years.”
All this is not to say that there aren’t some “canned beer apocalypse” volunteers in Europe. Beer sommelier Fritz Wülfing, who is an evangelist for craft in cans and regularly holds canned beer tastings at events across Europe, can name several. They include: Bad Attitude in Stabio, Switzerland and Lervig Aktiebryggeri in Norway. And some other brewers have also recently begun, including Scottish brewery Brewdog and Belgium Brewer Het Anker which just recently began canning its Lucifer beer.
“Sure, the people are surprised,” Wülfing says about reactions during his tastings, “because the image of canned beer is poor. They are of the opinion: Canned beer is tasteless and cheap. For our tastings we use U.S. craft beer, because there are no alternatives available. The people who expect boring beer get flavorful specialties and are impressed. For most of them their first contact with such beers in cans is at these tastings.”
For Norway’s Lervig Aktiebryggeri, the decision to can its specialty beer sort of fell into its lap, says brewmaster Mike Murphy. “This brewery was set up as a pilsner-style brewery until I came and took it in it’s new direction torwards craft beer,” he says. “So it already has a can line attached. But I believe cans are the future and the best way to store a beer (other than a brewing tank) so I naturally wanted to put our more marketable craft beer in the can.”
Nick Beltraminelli, Head Brewer and Owner of Birrificio Ticinese and Bad Attitude Craft Beer in Switzerland, says he started canning his beer three years ago. “The inspiration came from my trip to the USA in 2008 where I had the opportunity to try the whole production in cans of Oskar Blues. During this trip, I decided it would be nice to bring our craft beer in cans for the European market,” he says.
Like Wülfing, Murphy is an enthusiastic evangelist for canning. “It is cheaper to ship (more beer per pallet) because it weighs less than glass, and there’s also more compact storage and better product stabilty,” he says. “Also, it’s easy to recycle. The cans also look great with full printing on the graphics. Not to mention the beer’s flavor is much more stable in the can than a bottle. Think of it as a small brewery vessel.”
Murphy also points out, however, that there are some headwinds slowing can adoption in Europe “The hardest part for European brewers is that most can printers are not doing small orders,” he says. “In the U.S. you can get very small runs on can printing. This of course favors the smaller craft brewer.”
But major can suppliers, like Ball, are aware of the popularity of craft in cans in the U.S. and are eyeing the European market as well. Sylvia Bloemker, Director, Public Relations for Ball in Europe, points out that her company is currently the leading supplier of cans for craft brewers in the U.S., “and we want to become a leading supplier in Europe, too.”
As for now, Murphy says he has spoken to a few other craft brewers who are interested in canning. “Some will start and some are waiting to see if it becomes accepted here in Norway,” he says. ”Once consumers understand that a can is not an indicator of beer quality.” He compares it to what happened with wine screw caps in Europe. “Screw cap wine bottles are accepted because there has been some good wine in screw cap bottles, and that’s what it’s going to take to get a strong showing of craft beer in cans.”