Birth of the Beer Can, 1935

In the week that Thornbridge announced it would begin canning beer after years of resistance we happened across an amusing article on the same subject in a 1935 edition of the New Yorker magazine.

It appeared without byline in the ‘Talk of the Town’ section in the issue for 30 November and begins like this:

We resigned from the Foreign Legion last week and joined the war between the beer-bottle people and the beer-can people. It is a lot more fun. We spent the entire week teasing bottle men about cans, and can men about bottles. “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Hopper, of the Continental Can Company, “that glass is a better insulator than tin?” “Is it a fact,” we asked Mr. Norrington, of the Glass Container Association of American, “that beer in Continental Cans is how beer ought to taste?” “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Odquist, of the American Can Company, “that the use of the can is complicated by the uncertain vicissitudes of international trade and amity?” We even called up Ruppert’s and asked them if it was a fact they were still put beer in funny old-fashioned bottles, instead of in “keg-lined cans” that have that “fresh from the brewery” flavor. They got so excited they made us come up to the brewery and take a blindfold test to see if we could tell draught beer from bottled beer. We failed, time and time again, time and time again. Gol darn, we’ve had fun lately!

Continental Can Company ad, c.1935.
SOURCE: Pinterest, unfortunately; probably from a magazine like Colliers which we know ran ads with this copy in 1935.

The article goes on to describe attempts by the various different can manufacturers to talk down each others products as resembling tomato tins or oil canisters respectively.

Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn joined on the side of the can, and presented us with twenty-three reasons it is better than the bottle, including Reason No. 13: “The housewife is used to the can.”

It was during this period of intense competition, the article suggests, that the ‘stubby bottle’ was invented as the glass answer to the can’s compact form, but there were dirty tricks, too:

The can people, hearing that glass men were openly branding a can-opener as a “deadly weapon,” developed the “cap-sealed can,” which opens just like a bottle. The bottle people, a little bit sick of some of the extravagant claims of the tin folk, quietly placed chemists at work, with a view to showing that the can group is a bunch of liars…. It’s hard to know whom to believe. Champions of the can say that light hurts beer. The glass people say that’s nonsense — heat, not light, hurts beer.

An advert for Keglined cans.
1935 advertisement for Keglined cans. SOURCE: Archive.org.

There’s some surprisingly detailed technical talk about lining for cans, too, designed to prevent the beer tasting metallic, with one manufacturer implying that their lining was similar to the resin pitch used in beer kegs, which, as the New Yorker gleefully points out, it really wasn’t.

It’s fascinating to read something from a moment when the can had yet to prove itself:

At present, most canned beer is sold in the South; but Continental now has a contract with Schlitz, and American with Pabst, so Milwaukee is now beginning to can its brew. So far, no New York brewery has gone over. Piel’s and Rubsam & Horrmann are blossoming out with “stubbies,” the new-day bottle. The steel industry is counting on 1,500,000,000 beer cans in 1936.

As we know, the can certainly did take off, and after decades of association with the most commodified of commodity beer, has had a strange resurgence in popularity and credibility in just the past decade. And yet more or less the same criticisms are voiced and the same claims are made — “cools faster” says the 1935 ad above, and that’s still a major selling point today. It’s a sign of the times, though, that disposability, a key benefit in 1935, has been replaced on the checklist with recyclability in 2018.

For more information the development of beer canning in the US check out Keglined, an entire website dedicated to that very subject. Main image adapted from this scan by ‘Billy’ at Flickr.

St Austell Cornish Saison for M&S

Marks & Spencer, the slightly upmarket English supermarket-stroke-department-store, has been doing interesting things with its beer range for a few years now but the idea of a Cornish-brewed Saison really grabbed our interest.

It’s produced for them by St Austell, a brewery very much on our trusted list, and has evolved from an original small-batch brew designed in collaboration with beer writer Melissa Cole. It has 5.9% ABV, comes in a cute purple 330ml can, and costs £2. (Or less as part of the current four-for-the-price-of-three promotion.)

But is it a bargain, or do we have a Hatherwood situation on our hands?

Saison in the glass with can nearby.

It is perfectly, almost astonishingly clear in the glass, with a decent head of foam that stops short of Belgian voluminousness. (Perhaps it’s harder to achieve the necessary pressure in cans.)

On tasting, the model is clear: it is an homage to Saison Dupont, which is fine by us. There’s the same familiar spiciness from the yeast and the same golden colour. It isn’t a slavish clone, though: this beer is cleaner, more bitter, and seemed to have a lot more orange peel and coriander character.

In fact by the end of the glass we were wondering if it might not almost be described as a kind of Kristall Wit — that is, an application of the filtering technique used to clarify certain wheat beers in Germany to the spicier, more citrusy Belgian equivalent.

It’s a fascinating, very enjoyable beer that could easily pass for something genuinely Belgian. (We know St Austell’s head brewer, Roger Ryman, is a Belgian beer fanatic.) So, yes, that means it’s good value, and we’ll certainly be buying some more next time we pass a branch of M&S.

In general, we do like how M&S packages its own-brand beers these days. Quite apart from the cool and colourful graphic design they’re (a) clearly identified as own-brand but (b) with clear information about who brews them. That means we can make an informed choice about which to take a chance on (Oakham, Adnams, St Austell) and which to avoid (sorry, Hogs Back).

Checking in On Wylam and Northern Monk

Last year we hatched a grand plan to try beers that other bloggers named in their Christmas 2016 Golden Pints posts. That didn’t quite come off but did prompt us, eventually, to revisit Wylam and Northern Monk.

We bought the following beers from Beer Ritz with the support of Patreon subscribers like Alec Latham and Will Jordan — thanks, folks!

  • Northern Monk Heathen, 440ml can, £4.16
  • Northern Monk Mango Lassi Heathen, 440ml can, £4.87
  • Wylam Table Beer, 330ml bottle, £2.51
  • Wylam Sweetleaf IPA, 440ml can, £4.50
  • Wylam Slack Jaw IPA, 330ml bottle, £3.12

Heathen IPA was one of the specific beers on the Golden Pints master list, described by Simon Girt (@LeedsBeerWolf) as having ‘consistent, dank, juicy appeal’. In its big, colourful can it certainly looked exciting and enticing. Pale and hazy, our first reaction was, oof, onion soup! The body is velvety and milky, even creamy, with a chewable calcium tablet quality. Beyond the onion we got weed, armpits, and the stink of overripe fruit sitting in the sun. It’s not our kind of thing, especially at 7.2% ABV, but is one of the better examples of this kind of beer we’ve encountered — as clean and precise as the style permits.

Mango Lassi IPA.
It’s near-relation, Mango Lassi Heathen, smelled much more appealing — sweet and summery, all pop art and shower gel. It contains real mango but doesn’t taste ‘flavoured’. It too is milky with a delicate yogurt acidity of such subtlety that we might even have completely imagined it based on the beer’s name. There is a lime-peel kick, too, which brings to mind beach-side cocktails. It is full of fizz and prickle and, for us, easier drinking than straight Heathen, albeit not quite as exciting or outlandish as the name promises. And, ouch, that price tag. (This one was a 2016 Golden Pints pick from the Beernomicon podcast AKA @Beernomicon.)

We should say that, overall, we feel quite warm towards Northern Monk, whose core beers are among the most reliable and best value around. If you like this type of beer, you’ll probably like these particular beers. If you don’t, they won’t convert you.

Wylam DH.

These next three weren’t on any specific Golden Pints lists but Wylam generally did well and throughout 2017 seemed to buzz away in the background, quietly impressing people, so we reckon it’s a brewery that warrants frequent check-ins.

DH Table Beer, which offered a pleasing inversion of a familiar narrative. At only 3.5% ABV and with a mere three months to run on the best before countdown we expected it to be knackered and thus earn us some ‘drink fresh’ reprimands; but, in reality, it could hardly have tasted fresher — as if they’d somehow captured and packaged a spring breeze as it passed over a field of young grass. It’s an interesting beer, too — lemony, coconutty and very dry, with a quirky Belgian yeast character that brings to mind the weakest of the Chimay’s or Elusive’s wonderful Plan-B. Perhaps the long shelf-life is explained by the high bitterness, which in turn seems to be pleasingly softened by the light haze. It is perhaps a touch too raw and rustic but what it is not is boring, or stale, or dull, or dirty. We’d drink this again.

Slackjaw IPA was, by contrast, rather a disappointment. Is it supposed to taste a touch salty, and have that faint sourness? Beyond that, even at a mere 6%, it tastes like a dark double IPA of the 2007 school in which caramel malts and hops combine to suggest strawberry jam. It was passable, certainly drinkable, and red fruit plus acidity did add up to a certain freshly-squeezed quality. We suspect age and packaging problems might have dulled its edge and will certainly give it another chance, especially if we encounter it on tap.

Finally there came Sweet Leaf, a big, modern IPA (7.4%) in a big, modern can. Yellow and cloudy it certainly looked the part and threw up a wonderful ornamental garden aroma of fleshy flowers and strange fruit. The flavour combination — green onion and sweet pineapple — didn’t quite work for us but was certainly distinctive. A bit of dirtiness in the aftertaste was also distracting. Overall, though, it would seem to be another solid example of the style of the day, and might be just the thing for palates fatigued by excesses of citrus.

Wylam, then, stay in about the same place on our mental rankings: capable of great things, but lacking the polish and reliability of, say, Thornbridge.

Magical Mystery Pour #32: Gun Brewery Zamzama IPA

This is the last of the mini-series of Sussex beers from a selection suggested by Rach Smith of Look at Brew (@lookatbrew) and it’s a 6.5% IPA.

We bought our can of Zamzama online from South Down Cellars for £2.70 plus delivery and it has been sat in our fridge since arriving a couple of months ago. Rach says:

Gun beers have become some of my favourites over the past couple of years, not just among Sussex beers, but overall. I think the Sussex spring water that’s used may help with that! The modern and often creative beers are flying the flag for contemporary Sussex brews and breaking out of the region. This is the boldest beer in the core range, and drinks with a huge profile of pineapple, mango and lychee, with a spicy kick and toffee to round it all off.

Zamzama IPA in the glass.

It came out of the can a slightly hazy gold, throwing up a lot of enticing orange peel aroma, and with plenty of carbonation. (See photo above.) Pouring what was left in the can nudged it from hazy to cloudy but didn’t seem to much change the flavour.

Rach mentioned pineapple, mango and lychee; our first gulps suggested passion fruit. But in the world of tasting notes, same difference, really. Sweet, vibrant, sticky tropical fruit is the point.

We were delighted by how clean it tasted — no staleness, no cardboard, not a wheelbarrow full of muddy onions, just a lot of Jaffa Cake jelly and jam, balanced by a rye bread bitterness in the background. Cans can be a lottery but this time it worked.

It’s perhaps more of a 2010 beer than a 2017 one — the kind of thing we remember drinking at The Rake in Borough Market in the form of expensive American imports — but that’s fine by us.

It is sweet and Ribena-like, though, and we’d perhaps like a touch more bitterness, but that’s not a fault, just a preference.

If you like juicy, fruity, Technicolor beers but find too many of the most feted examples excessively dirty and savoury, as we do, then consider giving this one a go.

We’d like to thank Rach again for choosing beers and providing notes, and apologise for having made a bit of mess of the buying process. We’re going to think about who to invite next but have a few ideas bubbling away already.

QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub

Stella Artois advertising c.2007.

Some might regard the sale of canned big brewery lager in pubs as a bad sign but there is a definite silver lining.

This year, we’ve been making a special effort to break routine and go to pubs that, for one reason or another, we’ve ignored or avoided in the past. (Which, by the way, has been great fun.) As part of that, on Friday, at a loose end between trains in St Austell, we went to the first pub we came across on exiting the station — The Queen’s Head Hotel.

Some context: St Austell is a working town rather than a tourist destination, dominated by the brewery up the hill with its slick Hicks’ Bar, but oddly lacking a destination pub at its centre. We’ve tended to end up in the over-large, over-bright White Hart on previous visits because we could at least see inside. Often quiet in the evenings, the town is even more so in November and early December.

The Queen’s Head is an old building with two entrances and, though lacking partitions, indicates the lingering class divide with soft furniture and carpeting. All the action was around the bar and the pool table where regulars of various ages, all male as far as we observed, were chatting and joking with the young woman behind the bar.

There was cask ale on offer, and it was in decent condition, but we were surprised to see how many people were drinking pint cans of Stella Artois, straight from the tin. There is one obvious reason for that choice: it was £2.60 a pop, whereas the going rate for a pint of draught lager is more like £4.

For beer folk, this might seem like bad news, even a bit depressing — what hope for breweries if people don’t want or can’t afford to drink the beer they produce? And it does feel a bit like the pub has given up — the equivalent of turning up for work in your pyjamas.

But here’s that silver lining we promised: doesn’t this say something quite hopeful about the institution of the pub?

Given that you can buy Stella at the supermarket for the equivalent of about £1.30 a pint — exactly the same product, served in the same way — why would you pay even as much as £2.60? The pub, even one that isn’t all that special, is adding value.

People have to go out once in a while to be with other humans, and the pub is still the best place to do it.