For many years, beer in cans has been something of a poor relation to bottles and kegs – but this may be more to do with the liquid inside the can, rather than the packaging itself. However, recent research has shown that craft brewers are leading the way and championing the use of cans, with a quarter of craft beers sold in the UK now contained in cans.

Research from Nielsen demonstrates the booming growth for this format, with canned craft beer sales increasing by 327% from January to August last year. Data collected from grocery multiples and off-licences shows that cans are now an increasingly popular choice for craft beer versus the bottle. We take a closer look at the trends and attitudes towards packaging that are encouraging consumers to choose canned craft beers over bottled.

Changing attitudes: millennials look for lifestyle-appropriate packaging

Today’s consumers are continually on the lookout for a product that fits in with their lifestyle. Drawn to products that taste great, simplify their lives and catch their eye, the can is an ideal choice because it is lightweight, convenient, chills quickly, is easy to carry, often features vibrant eye-catching imagery, and is infinitely recyclable.

“Demands have changed so that consumers now seek a product that not only tastes great and looks good, but has a positive impact on the environment too,” explains Martin Constable, chairman of the Can Makers, the trade body representing the UK companies responsible for the manufacture of beverage cans. “This has been a key driver of the recent successes of canned drinks.”

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Conscientious consumers now want to be more informed about the origin of the products they buy, as well as what happens to the packaging after purchase. As such, they expect brands to be transparent about provenance and how packaging can be sustainably disposed of – and environmental considerations are now rising on the list of decision-making factors when it comes to making a purchase for many of today’s drinks consumers.

A 2016 GfK UK study on consumer perceptions of drink cans found that 14-17-year-olds placed recyclability ahead of convenience in terms of important factors when choosing a drink. Consumers aged over 35 believed that the recyclability of the drinks can is its strongest feature. These two age groups are pushing environmental considerations higher up in the decision making process, and have played a significant role in making the can a premium packaging format.

The packaging argument: metal is forever

From a brewer’s point of view, cans are lighter and designed to stack efficiently, resulting in no wasted storage space. They are also much safer to carry and, being lightweight – a single can weighs approximately 20% of the weight of a 330ml bottle – they are far cheaper to transport. They are also environmentally friendly, as the metal used in the production of cans is 100% recyclable and can be recycled time and time again, with the process typically using less than 10% of the energy needed to create a new can.

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Brewers also understand that their customers are looking for greener packaging options, so are being savvier by choosing the most recycled pack format on the market: the aluminium can. As the drinks can is the most recycled drinks package in the world, with every can collected being recycled with no loss of quality, the sustainability argument for canned craft beer is strong. Every week in the UK, around 38 million drinks cans are recycled, while the recycled material retains the same characteristics and quality as the original. This is in stark contrast to other packaging materials – such as paper, board and plastics – where recycled material is of a lower quality.

In 2016, seven out of every ten aluminium drink cans sold in the UK were recycled, an impressive jump from just 2% recycling rate in 1989. This 70% milestone is a considerable contribution to the European metal packaging sector’s own ambition to reach and exceed an average 80% metal packaging recycling rate by 2020.

Additionally, beer brands are now able to choose the canning option best suited to their needs. The recent introduction of lower volume contract lines in the UK, as well as a wide choice of mobile lines for hire and lines for purchase, has contributed to the growth, as these options are cost-effective and flexible.

“Mobile canning, ideal for small or one-off brews, means passionate brewers can retain control and feel confident about the handling of their beers as the canning is done on site,” explains Constable. “Contract canning comes into its own for drinks producers looking for bigger runs.”

A question of taste: busting the metallic flavour myth

While canned beer may traditionally have conjured up images of lower quality lager, unfit for devoted drinkers of ale, the main argument in favour of cans today is, in fact, flavour. Contrary to popular belief, today’s canned beer does not taste metallic; modern production techniques include coating the aluminium with a water-based polymer lining that eliminates any contamination or unwanted flavours.

Cans are also better than bottles at protecting beer from light, preventing harmful UV rays from penetrating the packaging which can leave beer tasting ‘skunky’ or onion-like. The canning process also creates an air-tight container, preventing any air leeching under the crown cap of a bottle and oxidising the beer. Aluminium cans cool down much faster than their glass bottle counterparts, meaning that consumers can enjoy a cool craft beer quicker, which may appeal to customers looking to relax and unwind at the end of a long day.

Busting the myth that beer in cans can taste off is one of the many reasons why craft brewers worldwide are choosing cans to maintain the taste and look of their drink. And with packaging under increased scrutiny, sustainability has become more important than ever before, encouraging drinks makers to meet these new demands from the consumer to reduce the environmental impact of their product. “To continue to meet the rapidly changing consumer demands and to ensure they are using the most sustainable packaging possible, cans are a viable alternative for craft brewers,” says Constable.

Consumers will continue to seek out brands that have stories to tell, have strong environmental credentials, use natural ingredients, and offer new taste experiences. The design of the beer can is an area that will continue to see innovation. Craft brewers will continue to create more innovative design options, including the use of new coatings, finishes and additionals, such as UV inks, tactile finishes, coloured ends and tabs, peel and reveal labels, and full aperture ends.

“As long as brands keep coming up with new and exciting ways to engage and entertain their consumers, so the Can Makers will continue to work to support a drinking experience enhanced by can,” concludes Constable.