An age-old debate, settled with science
How things have changed. About eight years ago, we did a piece where we reviewed beers in cans. The substance of the piece was that cans were a cost effective way for breweries to move beer from brewery to customer, and tended to be the package of choice for value beers. Nowadays, some of the best craft breweries are opting to put their beers – both expensive and ‘daily’ beers – into both bottles and cans, with some breweries choosing to package exclusively in cans. This trend has moved from the new breweries who might have been seeking a point of difference on the shelves to ‘classic’ beer brands from long established breweries.
Today, we are tasting two beers from cans – both Belgian. The first – Cuvee de Trolls – is a strong Belgian blonde ale with a quirky brand icon, but with all of the quality and flavour that one would expect from a quality Belgian blonde ale. The second is a classic from the world of sour beers – Rodenbach is a mixed fermentation sour that is now available in cans as well as in bottles.
Thirty to forty years ago craft beer had not developed. Mainstream beers were on a path to becoming more ‘drinkable’ – the big brewers were on a mission to establish their brands with beer drinkers as they started drinking beer, and their goal was to ensure that the flavours would not alienate their potential new recruits rather than delight and excite them. Not surprisingly, the price of such mainstream beers came down as the liquid being presented to beer drinkers drifted more to being a commodity than a thing of beauty.
As prices of mainstream beers drifted downwards, mainstream brewers were excited about any ways of saving on costs. Cans provided a number of cost savings. More liquid could be fitted into the same ‘space’ meaning that transport was less expensive. Less packaging (aluminium in cans is distinctly thinner than the glass in bottles, and there is no need for labels when printed cans are used) meant that further savings could be achieved. Without anybody intending it, cans became the less expensive way for a person to purchase a branded beer.
However, cans offer a number of secondary benefits to beer. While cans reduces transport costs and the amount of packaging required for the beer, and this means that costs are reduced, it also means that the environmental impact of the beer is also reduced. In today’s world, where everybody except for Donald Trump realises that we have only one planet, this has become a factor that is considered much more by people.
Does using a can improve, change or worsen the quality of a beer? This is a question that has a simple and a complicated answer – we will go through both.
When a beer is brewed, many brewers are of the attitude that the packaging department will only negatively affect the quality of the beer. If beer is packaged badly, then oxygen picked up during packaging can impact the flavour of the beer. However, nowadays brewers should be able to package beers with negligible levels of dissolved oxygen. This is the case whether the beer is in bottle or can – so the simple answer should be that the choice of packaging material should make no difference to the beer.
After the beer has been packaged, there is the chance that the beer will deteriorate in package. The question arises as to whether bottle or can is the better option for protecting the beer. In this instance, the answer is not as straightforward.
People who propose cans are best would put forward as one of their main arguments the fact that the beer is protected from light. Hop oils in beer can react with sunlight and fluorescent light to develop a flavour that is called in colloquial terms ‘skunky’ (the technical name for this flavour is 3MBT – 3-Methyl-2-Butene-1-thiol). Cans do not allow any light to get into the beer, so from this perspective cans provide the ultimate protection from skunky flavours developing in beer. However, brown glass also provides significant protection from light – it is only when beer is packaged in green glass or clear glass that it is exposed to significant potential from damage from light. Likewise, if a beer bottle is enclosed in a cardboard carton, then this also provides protection. Many American brewers have increased the height of the sides of 6-packs so that the bottles in their 6-pack baskets have a secondary (or tertiary, if you count the cardboard carton) protection from light for this very reason.
The other factor that is relevant with avoiding skunky flavours in beer is the fact that these flavours can develop incredibly quickly. It takes only one to five minutes for skunky flavours to develop in beer when it is exposed to sunlight. So, if you are drinking your beer out in a beer garden, there is the possibility that it was fine when it went into the glass, but has gone a little skunky a few minutes later.
Do people notice this? Again, the answer is not as straightforward as we would hope. Some people have come to associate skunky flavours with beers that are packaged in green glass – they have gotten used to the idea that the beer will taste like this, and are surprised if the skunky flavour is not present. 3MBT is a flavour that humans can pick up in incredibly low concentrations – one would think that this would mean that people would notice it all the time. However, because we are so sensitive to it, it also means that we adapt to it very quickly as well. To explain what this means, think of going into a boys locker room with lots of sweaty clothes spread all around. On first walking in, the odour hits you immediately. However, after a period of time, you adapt to the odour, and reach a point where you don’t notice it any more. This can happen with skunky flavours in beer – we adapt to them and stop noticing them.
Finally, what about when a brewer does not necessarily want their beer to stay consistent? This doesn’t sound like something that brewers would hope for – i.e. that the flavour of their beer would change over time – but it is the case with beers that are designed for vintaging. Some beers (including Belgian Quadrupels, Barley Wines, Lambics, Imperial Stouts, and Flanders Reds) are particularly suited to cellaring. The complexity of the beer’s flavour develops over time, and the beer can become a different proposition after five or ten years as compared to how it was when it was first packaged.
With such beers, craft beer lovers will sometimes cellar the beers and age them so that they can appreciate these flavour differences over time. To achieve this development of flavour, sometimes the presence of tiny amounts of oxygen in the bottle can allow the beer to vintage. Beers that are designed to vintage are sometimes packaged with a champagne cork – which could allow a certain amount of oxygen to get access to the beer. In such instances, the seal of a can might be too absolute. The likelihood that we will see beers designed for vintaging to be packaged in cans seems to be remote at this time, but who knows how attitudes might change over the years?
Cuvee de Trolls
Cuvee de Trolls has a slightly cheeky troll character on the bottle or can – something that is not unusual in Belgian culture. This troll could give the impression that this is a simple beer. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Aromas of Cuvee de Troll give boozy soft fruit, reminiscent of peaches soaked in sherry. This combines with subtle spice – white pepper. There is a further note of rose / rosewater that comes through quite distinctly, even though this is a relatively subtle aroma normally.
Cuvee de Trolls has a bright, refreshing flavour that balances stone fruit and spice. White and black pepper, allspice and soft clove flavour are present – bitterness in this beer is distinctly unassertive, with this spice character providing the balance in the beer. The flavour further develops with candied soft fruit coming through – peach, apricot and strawberry. A slightly booze finish blending subtle lingering spice, with a warming in evidence after the swallow. This beer is incredibly refreshing as spice lifts the mouth feel, and the fruit is distinctly mouth-watering.
The finish of this beer gives an impression of what I would describe as spicy Turkish Delight. Rosewater (as can be present in Turkish Delight) is evident in the finish, and this combines with the warming alcohol that develops after the swallow. Overall, the impression of this beer is one of a beer that is incredibly sophisticated and very well balanced.
Rodenbach is considered to be a classic example of the Flanders Red style. Seeing Rodenbach in a can shows how attitudes to cans have developed over the last few decades among beer drinkers – craft beer drinkers in particular.
Rodenbach Classic is the lower alcohol version of Rodenbach. At 5.2%, it is a touch below Rodenbach Grand Cru (6.0%) and Rodenbach Vintage (7.0%). Having tasted these beers over a number of years, there is an interesting aspect to the flavours present in each that results from the manner in which these beers are blended. Rodenbach as a beer is aged in oak foeders (large oak vats). Each vat imparts an individual, and quite distinctly different character to the beer. As well as achieving this character in each foeder, part of the expertise in brewing Rodenbach is involved in the manner in which beers from different foeders are blended to achieve the final beer.
Rodenbach Vintage is selected from a single foeder – so all of the character from that foeder is in evidence in the beer, and the flavours present in Rodenbach Vintage can vary slightly (just the same as different vintage wines can vary). Rodenbach Grand Cru consists of 66% two to three year old beer blended with 33% one year old beer. Rodenbach Classic consists of 25% two to three year old beer blended with 75% one year old beer.
This translates into a complexity of flavour both within the beer and over time. Each year that I have tasted Rodenbach Vintage, I have noticed a distinct flavour that evolves from the year before. There is still a wonderful complexity to Vintage, but the balance of the beer tends to favour a particular flavour in one year more so than it does in others. Going back some years ago, cherry was coming through more distinctly. The next year, raspberry was more in evidence. In more recent times, cider apple vinegar and balsamic vinegar were the notes that came through up front. All of the other flavours were present as well – just the balance and dominance of individual flavours varied slightly in vintage each year. This drift can be more noticeable in Rodenbach Grand Cru (recently, in a tasting I was getting the cider apple vinegar more so that the cherry or raspberry that I had come to associate with Grand Cru).
When it comes to Rodenbach Classic, the blending of beers means that the flavours mentioned above tend to be all present, but balanced to afford a degree of subtlety and complexity that means that individual flavours tend not to punch through as much. Aromas of cola cube, woody/oaky and cherry with a touch of chilli and black pepper spice (that doesn’t follow through to taste) are all present. Flavours that come through on the palate include the full palate of flavours that come through in different versions of Rodenbach Vintage. Cherry, raspberry, cola, cider apple, balsamic vinegar are all present and combine to provide a distinctly refreshing taste experience. Not surprisingly given that Rodenbach is a member of the sour beer family, Rodenbach Classic has a tart sourness on the palate that further contributes to the beers superbly refreshing character.