ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Can canned beer ever be any good?

Before we were old enough to get served in pubs, my friends and I used to buy cans of beer from the corner shop. We thought it was all very grown up - particularly because we eschewed the usual Fosters and Stella in favour of tinned John Smiths, McEwans Export, and my favourite at the time, Royal Oak.

There was even a 'draught' bitter from Guinness with one of those plastic 'widgets' in the can, which were all the rage in the early 90s. It was probably discontinued years ago, but back in the day it was massive, and even had its own bizarre TV ad, where some guy travelled to an unspecified hot country and chose to keep his supply of Guinness bitter in a river!

Remember this?
I thought it was a nice beer at the time, but I ate Big Macs and Dairy Milk back then as well. Didn't know any better (which was ironic as I thought I knew it all).

Once the pubs started letting us in and we got to drink real beer on a regular basis, it soon dawned on me that the metallic fizz we'd been supping was inherently inferior, and that was that, really. For the best part of 20 years, I've only ever drunk canned beers very, very occasionally, and then usually only out of politeness.

That changed a couple of days ago.

No 'Can' Do

Yes, I drink Diet Coke and eat beans sometimes, but for the most part, I don't do stuff that comes from tins. Canned beer certainly hasn't been on my radar, ranking below cask, bottle and keg, so deliberately ordering and drinking a couple of cans felt a bit weird, particularly in a pub!

There have been vague whisperings for a while that craft cans are going to be the next big beery thing, without much happening, at least on this side of the Atlantic.. until a couple of weeks ago when Mr. Wetherspoon turned up unexpectedly at the party, arriving early with a three-pack of beers from New York's Sixpoint brewery.

The 355ml cans are available in all of the chain's 900-odd pubs, and sell for a shade under 3 quid each, depending on the location, well above the 'eight for £1.49' price point of pissy tinned lager.

Spoons have been champions of American beer over the past couple of years, but until now this has mostly involved flying brewers over to the UK to brew cask ale at some of the larger breweries. The Sixpoint cans signal a shift in gears though.

I can see the operational advantages in canned beers vs bottles. More cost-effective to ship across the world, arguably better for the environment, easier to store, that sort of thing. But I'd always assumed that any canned beer would be inferior to its bottled equivalent and certainly not fit to massage the shoulders of the same beer from a freshly-tapped cask.

But I'm always happy for my prejudices to be challenged, so bring it on, Sixpoint. Hit me with your hardest aluminium clubs (assuming cans are still made from aluminium these days).

The taste test

After pouring the cans into glasses and taking my first sips I was struck by the relatively low levels of carbonation. I've had keg beers lately that were far more fizzed-up than this, and this boded well. I've no idea if the cans are pasteurised or not, but based on the breadth of flavours, I suspect they aren't, and that's another positive.

Importantly there was none of the horrible metallic twang that I remember from the cans I drank as a youngster. 

'The Crisp', at 5.2% is marketed as a Pilsner-style lager, though to my palate it's perhaps more of a Marzen, with a smidgen of fruit upfront and a clean, dry maltiness in the finish that is indeed, well, crisp.

Sixpoint cans - at a Wetherspoons near you
Packing a bit more of a punch in its shiny metal ass is the 5.4% 'Sweet Action'  which has a spicy hop aroma and a fairly full, bitter-sweet flavour.

Purporting to be somewhere between a wheat beer, pale ale and a cream ale, the balance of power seems to lie with the latter style as it tastes noticably American, without being a huge citrussy hop-monster. Quite mellow, and as with the Crisp, if it had been served to me in a glass I'd have assumed it came out of a bottle or possibly from a keg.

The third in the set is the more typically hop-forward 'Bengali Tiger' (6.4%). I've not sampled this 'from the metal' yet, but I have had it on keg in the States and a cask version brewed at Adnams, and it's a big, piney fucker. Again, no reason why it shouldn't work as well as the other two in the tin.

Last year I had a discussion about 'craft' keg with famed foreign beer writer Tim Webb at a beer writers bash and while I can't remember much of the detail of the conversation - we'd both had a few pints, obviously - I do recall making the point that while there are now loads of good keg beers on the market, they're good beers because they're good, not because they're keg.

I think this argument holds just as much beer when it comes to the canned stuff. Yes, it's possible to put good beer in a tin, and it's great that this is happening. But it's not the fact that it's in a tin that makes it good, and however tasty it is, a fresh cask version would probably taste even better.

So, while I welcome the addition of any new scenary to the beer landscape, and might even drink canned beer more often if craftier beers continue to spring up in this format, it's not going to be displacing real ale in my staple diet any time soon.

I'll stick look down my nose when I see people staggering, disoriented with their tins of Tennant's Super on the street. But it's reassuring to know that there is now some canned beer that's a hell of a lot better than the stuff I bought from the corner shop 20 years ago.


  1. I don't really see why canned beer has to be intrinsically any worse than bottled beer. Indeed cans are easier to transport and recycle and guarantee that the contents will not be light-struck.

  2. I agree with Mudgie, but, just playing devils advocate for a moment. If cans are just as good as bottles, it should follow that this would be the case with any alcoholic drink, and therefore we could conclude that wine in a can would be no worse than wine in a bottle.

    However, you'd struggle to find a serious wine drinker in all the land who would countenance that theory for a second. So... are they all deluded and Chateuneuf-du-pape from a tin could really taste exactly the same? Do different rules apply to wine and beer (or wine and beer bottles)? Or is there maybe some advantage afforded by a bottle that you can't get from a can?

    I don't purport to know the answers - just curious about these things.

  3. I'd drink from the cask whilst in a pub everytime! Can't beat having a nice pint of casked ale in the hand. I'd consider these from the local shop or at a bar that didn't have real ale on tap, but for around £3 I'd expect a much bigger can


Comments are always welcomed and encouraged, especially interesting, thought-provoking contributions and outrageous suggestions.