Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Can Canned?

There was a great deal of interest a few weeks ago when JD Wetherspoon launched in all of their pubs, a range of craft beer in cans from the well thought of Sixpoint Brewery in New York State.  Now it seems it all may be falling flat.
Canned beer to people of my generation is still a bit of a no no.  It reminds us of awful McEwans's Export and Tennent's Lager swigged in kitchens at parties, or on the bus or train on the way to the game. Those lucky enough to have escaped the dreaded Scottish duo will no doubt have your local equivalent thereof to shudder over. Many of us will still have dreadful flashbacks to our plooky youth, necking the stuff straight out of the can in public parks and feel these days are rightly behind us and the idea of paying top dollar for such a thing, beyond comperehension. In short, canned beer is still seen by many as a cheap and inferior product with a distinct metallic tinge, though we are assured that nowadays the internal coatings in cans stop that happening.  Folks like me saw, and to a large extent still see, cans as a transition product to pub drinking or at best, an occasional standby to give the less discerning visitor, or perhaps to surreptitiously neck in the privacy of our own living rooms when cash is short. Of course things move on and led  by our American friends, craft beer in cans is seen as trendy and fun and to prove the point, can be bought in many of the "new wave" bars around the country for outrageous prices.

In fairness, technology is on the side of the can fan.  Cans don't allow light in, which should ward off staling for much longer. The coatings inside prevent (as long as you decant it into a glass) the metallic taste and they are easier to chill and store for both consumer and retailer.  What's not to like in some ways and exponents of canned beer were very excited when JDW started selling them at two for a fiver in their pubs.  There was talk of a wonderful breakthrough into the mainstream and of the shattering of the high price craft beer model. "Canned beer is the future" type of thing. Heady stuff. Alas it seems that the JDW experiment (if that's what it is) is faltering.  They just aren't selling. In fact in many JDWs, you can now get all three of the variants for a five spot.  Quite a discount for genuine imported American beers.

So is it just that JDW is the wrong group to be selling the product, as their demographic would hardly seem to be best suited for it?  Is it the case that the beers, as some have suggested, are thin and piss poor?  Or are cans in mainstream pubs just something that won't sell?  Does it tell us anything at all about the likely success of canned craft beer?

I think it does. Canned craft beer will remain a niche within a niche.

I made this comment about the beers when they were launched:

They (JDW) try beers out and quietly drop them when demand doesn't meet expectations. You can probably expect that the availability of the new range will be reduced in many pubs if the beers don't sell, or, as in the past, they may just quietly be withdrawn. so maybe we best wait and see before getting too excited?


Justin Mason said...

I saw this move by Suxpoint as a way of gauging the UK market prior to a larger commitment. They have been scuppered slightly by the fact that they cannot be taken off site, as a major factor in favour of canned beer is it's portability.
I think it's a little premature to be announcing this canned beer experiment as a failure, particularly with the amount of canned beer ready for launch by UK brewers.
A good summer this year could well see the whole thing take off.

Andy said...

Can't be taken off site? I had no trouble escorting a can of Bengali out of a Norwich 'Spoons a couple of weeks ago so I could enjoy a nice beer whilst wandering the streets one afternoon not so long ago.

Tandleman said...

Justin and Andy: First of all may I thank you both for doing me the courtesy of responding on my blog rather than twitter. It's very much appreciated.

Justin: You may well be right. I only know really about Camden and BrewDog. Who else is doing it? It will also be price point dependent I think.

Andy: I was going to say to Justin that I didn't know you couldn't take the beers out of JDW. I'll ask a mate of mine that runs a JDW pub what the official position is.

Justin Mason said...

From talking to a local JDW manager the cans are required to be opened on site and poured into the tulip glass to be used with them. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, it is so that the drinker gets the full enjoyment from the beer and secondly, and probably more importantly, it is because JDW have no off-sales licence and dint want to fall foul of the law.
I have however been given the cans unopened, so I could have reasonably taken them away but in my experience in drinking the beer in quite a few pubs this isn't usually the case.

Justin Mason said...

Just to add as well that FourPure launched their cans this week with Beavertown to follow suit at the end if the month.
I have also come across considerably more US canned beers available in the UK some (but by no means most) at very reasonable prices.

Cooking Lager said...

I think they are 3 nice beers but there was better value to had in Spoons than those. At the new price they may find a niche, they may disappear. Spoons seem to try a lot of things and see what sticks.

Maybe it's the death of craft.

RedNev said...

Cans were always seen as the cheap alternative, and many's the party I've been to where tins of Watney's Party Seven and Party Four were the main source of beer. So popular were these that you could actually buy a tap to fit on the cans. Other breweries followed their example and I still have an empty Bodkan produced by Boddington's of Manchester: I have used it for 35 years as the litter bin in my bedroom, which didn't impress my mother.

I wouldn't be averse to trying a modern tinned beer, but while my expectations would be low, I'd have to accept I might be pleasantly surprised.

Matt Curtis said...

I think breweries such as Camden, Beavertown and Four Pure who have invested thousands in their own canning equipment will prove you wrong.

Dale Katechis of Oskar Blues started canning exclusively in 2002 and they're currently the 33rd largest brewery in the United States, not craft brewery, that includes everyone inc MillerCoors and AB InBev.

I think cans are here to stay.

Tandleman said...

Wrong Matt? Moi? No idea what Oskar Blues has to do with anything, but I can't see that three very small London breweries canning beer will do anything to move canned beer out of the niche I suggested it will remain in.

It is here to stay I'm sure and I didn't suggest otherwise, but mostly it will just rip off a wealthy and gullible London craft elite.

arn said...

Certainly the two branches I tried it at wouldn't allow me to take the cans away, policy they said.

Sue said...

Damn. What I need is a nice understanding Spoons manager - as they're trying to get rid I was hoping to buy about 10 for a camping trip. Would have been ideal.

Tandleman said...

Sue: Sounds like it would have to be an under the counter or back door arrangement to achieve your aim.

Philip Jones said...

For what's worth I've had plenty of carry outs from my local Spoons, including a full case once. Wasn't these cans though.

Matt Curtis said...

Wealthy? Moi? I'm 30 and live in London, I think you'll find the craft "elite" are far from wealthy.

I used Oskar Blues as an example as they make a great case study. They started using cans exclusively for their off premises produce 12 years ago when they were still a tiny microbrewery and now they are 33rd in size out of 2800 breweries in the States and are globally distrubuted. Give Beavertown a decade and see what they can do in that amount of time.

And Camden Hells cans are already available in some branches of Waitrose. Really "niche" beer shop that.

Tandleman said...

Well Matt. If not wealthy, there is another less appealing explanation then.

As for Oscar, it proves nothing in a UK context, particularly in the on trade.

Some Waitroses where? Think I need a bit more convincing.

Matt Curtis said...

I don't think there's any convincing you, Tanders ;)

Tandleman said...

Aw Matt. I'm hurt. I am always persuaded by good arguments and always prepared to admit I'm wrong.

Dubious analogies and wishful thinking won't convince me though.

I'm back in London in a couple of weeks.Fancy a pint?

Stono said...

well I suggested when these beers were launched, the average JDW demographic was unlikely to be convinced or steered away from their regular drinking habits by suddenly hopping on the craft beer revolution, however the beer was packaged up, but a number of people told me I was a snob for suggesting such a thing :)

but Ive not seen anyone drinking them inside or outside or talking about them in any Wetherspoons Ive been in since they were launched. and with canned beer its a lot harder to offer a taste though so you have tempt people through price, or get your highly motivated staff to do the sales pitch for them, and not just leave them sitting in the fridge unnoticed. as opposed to the unlimited refill till 2pm coffee deal which launched roughly around the same time and seems really popular.

however what I have noticed recently is other pub chains have obviously seen there might be a market for different beer styles, and have started offering US "craft" alternatives, similarly supermarkets. So maybe JDWs experiment will quitely be dropped, but it might have triggered a shift in other parts of the pub trade beyond their own, and actually they might just rotate the beers around anyway to keep it new/fresh/different

Ben Viveur said...

I tried these a couple of months back when they were launched and was pleasantly surprised, but they're not a game-changer.

Tim Martin backs a lot of horses, not all of which are winners. He certainly pulled the stops out trying to promote this one (home page of Spoons website for weeks, cover story in the Wetherspoon news etc.) but I'd expect the product line to be quietly dropped once the initial order has been fulfilled and stocks run out.

I don't think it's particularly due to stigmatisation of canned beer though. A large number of Spoons customers seem to enjoy drinking John Smiths smooth religiously, and almost certainly drink the same thing in cans at home.

For me it's that the mainstream and conservative customer base still aren't really into American craft beer - I don't think imported craft keg would do any better in most of their pubs either.

Phil said...

I think it's pricing, pure and simple; in the context of Spoons, a fiver for two (355 ml) cans is a lot. JDWs are flogging three or four other 'craft' beers (a BD, a Samuel Adams, that kind of thing), all of them also pitched at the 'reassuringly expensive' end of things, but the main competition is cask. In my experience you can get some very good beers on draught in a lot of Spoons these days, and it's very rare for the price to be as high as £2.50 a pint. I was in Hartlepool the other week, and the local Spoons was selling 'guest beers' at £1.55 a pint - vs the Sixpoint cans at two for a fiver, like everywhere else. No contest.

py said...

Cans are great for at-home drinking, but for the on-trade, why not just sell the beer on draught? Would surely be a) cheaper and b) more popular.

Tyson said...

I have to say that I think your dislike of the beers has made you jump to some sweeping conclusions. Matt made some good observations and there's no doubt cans are set to play a big part in craft beer's future. Alas I fear you may be a little more stuck in the past with your image of canned drinking than a lot of your contemporaries. I know quite a few of your CAMRA brethren of similar-and even older-age who are happily supping them.

Taste (and pricing) is the key here, not dispense method. With ordinary beers in Spoons at £2.20 and others at £2.50 that, combined with often a poor choice, leads many cask drinkers to opt for cans. Actually the cans have been selling quite well, particularly in the meal deal where they represent real VFM. The reason for the price drop is quite simple: shelf life. Being a new product, they were in unchartered waters and simply purchased too many. A million was the figure I heard. So with most cans expiring in 6 weeks, they have no choice but to adopt the supermarket format of reducing he remaining stock.

py said...

When you go into the pub, do you look in the fridge? I certainly don't. I look at the taps. I imagine 95% of beer drinkers do the same thing. You typically have a couple of minutes max to make up your mind, most likely an obstructed view of the fridge, so you just go for what is right in front of you.

I guarantee they would have shifted three times the number of units had it been on draught, a) because its significantly more noticeable, and b) because it feels like a safer option in terms of what price you might expect to be charged.

Tandleman said...

Fair points as always Tyson. I do happily sup the other craft offerings in JDW though.

We'll see how it all pans out.

Tyson said...


Not really a problem. There are usually giant sized cans when you come in and lots of POS material around to prompt you. Plus display can are deliberately displayed on shelves above the fridge so they are visible even when you can't see the bar, never mind the fridges!

Indeed. It will as always come down to how much they made from them and how much they thought they would.

Curmudgeon said...

Now £1.99 a can in my local Spoons, so more comparable with cask, given the higher strength.

As you say, Spoons experiment with things and drop them if they don't succeed, but they are stocking Punk IPA and Brooklyn Lager, so clearly they must think there is a market in their pubs for craft beers at quite a high price point. Not all Spoons customers are value drinkers.

I'd agree there is still a strong residual prejudice against cans amongst many older beer drinkers - but we are starting to see "new-wave" cask beers such as Old Golden Hen and Ghost Ship in canned form, so things are changing. They appeal to a completely different demographic than McEwan's Export.

py said...

I still think 90% of beer drinker instinctively go for draught beer ahead of anything else. Its just second nature. You hear it in restaurants and curry houses across the nation. No-one looks at the drinks menu, they just ask "what have you got on draught?".

I don't even look at POS stuff, most people are completely oblivious to it.

Anonymous said...

Central London Wetherspoons now charge £3.30 TO £3.70 for cask beer so the cans are good value for us Londoners less so in the grim north no doubt. cheers john

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