Beer

Why Brewers Are Turning to Can Conditioning

With bottle sales heading south, producers experiment with secondary-fermentation techniques

Photo courtesy of The Referend Bier Blendery.

Several years back, canning company Iron Heart called on Transmitter Brewing, inquiring about packaging its beer. Canning? The notion had never crossed cofounder Anthony Accardi’s mind.

The Queens, New York brewery sold its rustic saisons, sours, and wild creations in corked-and-caged bottles, naturally carbonated through a secondary fermentation. Called bottle conditioning, the technique creates a softer effervescence and more multifaceted flavor as compared with force carbonation, in which beers are infused with carbon dioxide. Switching to cans would likely mean losing the delicate fizz, a prospect less alluring than warm malt liquor.

But worse still would be irrelevance. “All things being equal, we’re in a moment where people look toward cans and want cans,” Accardi says. Transmitter read the writing on the store shelves and in January started selling canned saisons and golden ales. The brewery didn’t capitulate so much as innovate: It cracked the code on can conditioning.

The practice isn’t totally new. Notably, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and New Belgium Fat Tire are can conditioned. What’s different is that brewers are can-conditioning volatile sours, super-effervescent saisons, and beers teeming with wild yeast, bringing bottled-beer experiences to the beach koozie. Says Accardi, “We’re hoping to make our beer more accessible through packaging.”

Transmitter approached the challenge logically: The brewery conditioned beer in kegs; a can is simply a smaller keg, right? Transmitter started trials with Iron Heart, filling cans and monitoring their maturation. The brewery also filled cans at steadily higher volumes of carbon dioxide to discover their threshold. “We got to a point where we broke cans,” says Accardi, who was reassured that his beers would never bust a can’s seams. “I wanted to see what cans looked like at various volumes so we know if something has gone south.”

The founder of TRVE Brewing, Nick Nunns, also saw bottle sales taking a dive. The Denver-based brewer had seen bottles of his mixed-culture beers, fermented with various yeasts and souring bacteria, languishing on shelves. “Nobody wants to buy a bottle anymore anyway, unless it’s something very, very special,” Nunns says. “A 375 ml bottle is not as appealing as a four-pack of cans.”

TRVE beer
Photo courtesy of TRVE.

In May, TRVE canned its Seven Doors Grisette-Style Ale and Cosmic Crypt Farmhouse Pale Ale. Nunns was pleased by the beers’ low levels of dissolved oxygen—oxidation can devastate a beer’s flavor and aroma—and beautiful mouthfeel, courtesy of yeast left in suspension.

“The benefits far outweigh the costs for the expediency you’d gain in force-carbonating and packaging it that way,” Nunn says, noting that the beer was ready to drink in less than two weeks.

Buoyed by positive consumer response, TRVE decided to can its mixed-culture beers, typically a canning no-no. “The owner of our mobile canner has a yeast lab as well,” says Nunns, “and he was like, ‘I know we can clean this thing 100 percent and get all the bugs out of there.’”

Canning has helped TRVE cut costs. A 375 ml bottle of the brewery’s mixed-culture beer may run $7, while a four-pack of 16-ounce cans retails for $18. “We’ve found a packaging format,” Nunns says, “that makes our mixed-culture beers more accessible to the consumer.”

In Minnesota, Fair State Brewing Cooperative has also released canned mixed-fermentation beer, and Toronto’s Burdock has canned several sours, as has Transmitter. New Jersey’s Referend Bier Blendery specializes in oak-aged spontaneous beers that are packaged in both cork-and-caged bottles and cans, the latter earmarked for more hop-forward beers.

“When we release a bottle, we want people to know that they can safely age it,” says James Priest, The Referend’s founder. “The can is a little reminder that you maybe can hold onto this, and it might improve in some ways, but it’s not our recommendation.”

The Referend manually cans beers and sells them from its taproom for $8 to $10 apiece. Since introducing cans last winter, the brewery has noticed an uptick in volume sales, as well as a new crowd. “There’s something about that bright silver aluminum,” says Priest, “that really captures certain people’s attention.”  

One drawback, though, is storage. He cans beers still, adding sugar to restart fermentation. The cans are squishy for a week or two until carbonation cranks up, preventing the brewery from stacking them until then. Says Priest, “It’s a spatial concern.”

Moreover, his cans require at least three weeks before they’re ready, and some may take two months or longer. This makes date codes pretty useless. “The packaged-on date,” Priest says, “doesn’t necessarily reflect when it’s born, in a true sense.”

Freshness is paramount for IPAs, of course, which have aromas as fleeting as a news cycle. Wild and sour beers operate according to a different calendar. “We have a beer that we canned in November of last year,” says Priest, “and it still tastes great—arguably better than it did in December or January.”

TRVE’s Nunns pondered putting the canned-on date three weeks from the packaging day but instead opted to date the cans on filling day. “It might look stale,” Nunns says, “but if you’re familiar with how we’ve been going about packaging, then you’ll know that these beers, despite being a little older, quote unquote, won’t have deteriorated in the same way that hazy IPAs will have deteriorated. It’s going to be an educational hurdle.”

Transmitter favors a “best after” date, as cans may take two to four weeks to hit their sweet spot. “Carbonation happens pretty quickly,” says Accardi. “Then it’s waiting until the beer isn’t so green.”

Transmitter may have embraced cans, but it’s not saying goodbye to bottles. They’re still the home for wild beers (Iron Heart won’t can them), as well as a potent symbol. “As my wife says, she can grab a 750 and take it to a dinner party or a friend’s house and have it be a replacement for a bottle of wine,” Accardi says, “but that doesn’t feel the same with cans.”

Still, as the brewery preps for an expansion, cans could be key to bringing Transmitter’s nuanced saisons and sours to a broader audience. Says Accardi, “If it gives people entrée into a new flavor profile they might not otherwise have considered, then Yay, packaging! Let’s go for it.”

Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of four books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, and the just-released Homebrew World. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. On the weekends, he can usually be found posting at a local brewery taproom or eating his weight in dumplings.

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