It was a draught idea to put it in a can
Tasting notes on a new range of canned beers and ales that attempt to capture the flavour of the local pub
People are always asking which is best, draught, bottled or canned beer? The strongest argument in favour of draught beer is its habitat. To drink draught beer, one goes to a pub. The delight in the pint is doubled by the context in which it is enjoyed.
A further argument is that British ale is uniquely suited to being consumed on draught. That may be a romantic notion, but it also has a technical foundation.
This is the only country to have persisted on a large scale with cask-conditioning: the practice of delivering barrels of beer in a not-quite-ready state (with some unfermented sugars, and live yeast) to the pub, so that it can complete its development in the cellar. Because this secondary fermentation can only take place at a natural cellar temperature, and produces only a light, natural carbonation, cask-conditioned beer has none of the aggression of colder, gassier, products. It is soothing and sociable. It fits the mood of the pubs and cannot easily be made available at home.
Despite that, even "live" bottled beers differ in character. In the conflned space of the bottle, the secondary fermentation produces a much higher level of natural carbonation.
Draught beer is, by definition, drawn from a cask or keg. Had the brewing industry discovered marketing at the time, the oxymoron "draught beer in the bottle" might have attended the launch of early classics such as White Shield Worthington. The first bottled beers were unfiltered, with residual sugar and a sediment of live yeast. A handful are "live." Despite that, even "live" bottled beers differ in character. In the conflned space of the bottle, the secondary fermentation produces a much higher level of natural carbonation.
Early drinkers of bottled beer found this high carbonation novel, visually attractive and refreshing. When brewers began to filter beer for bottling (and, later, canning), to make it bright, they persisted with the high carbonation. It was necessary, anyway, to prevent oxygen from being retained in the bottle or can. Oxidation makes beer taste stale.
Here is a further advantage of draught beer. Its very popularity usually ensures a fast turnover, so draught beer is likely to be fresh. Bottles and cans may gather dust on the shelf, while their contents go stale.
In fresh beer, the sweetness of the malt smells and tastes as appetising as bread out of the oven, and the hops are as flowery and aromatic as a Kentish garden. Stale beer smells like bread that has been in the bin a week: cardboardy and papery.
Another advantage of draught is that, if it is cask-conditioned, it is not pasteurised. Nor is all keg draught treated in this way. Almost all beer that is filtered for the bottle or can in Britain is pasteurised for stability. In my view, even the most careful pasteurisation leaves some "cooked" flavour and diminishes that hoppy floweriness.
Brewers would like to retain a "draught" character in bottled or canned beer. In the United States and Japan, the word "draught" on a bottle or can usually means that the beer has been filtered to the point of sterility. This strips out flavour and body, but removes the need for pasteurisation.
The newest trick - being used in the British Isles to make products identified as "draught" in cans - retains pasteurisation but addresses itself to another area of taste: creaminess, softness and gentle, low carbonation In fermentation, beer produces only one gas: carbon dioxide. When it is hand-pulled, the manual pump action introduces air. Within air is nitrogen, and that enhances the texture and head by producing bubbles smaller than those created by carbon dioxide.
The filling system for bottled beers does not easily accommodate nitrogen, but Guinness found a way of introducing it into cans.
When Guinness launched its draught stout in Britain in 1961 it realised that a little nitrogen in the dispense system would ensure a creamy pint. The filling system for bottled beers does not easily accommodate nitrogen, but Guinness found a way of introducing it into cans.
Its canned Draught Guinness, launched in 1988, contains a capsule of a nitrogen-and-stout blend. This is filled on the canning line, and the contents of the capsule are released automatically when the package is broached. The opening of the can releases the pressure, and this causes the capsule to "blow." The stout inside the capsule helps to diffuse the nitrogen. This device, which won them a Queen's Award last month, is being employed in a canned ale, Guinness Draught Bitter, being test-marketed in the Anglia, Central and Granada television regions.
Not only does the nitrogen make the beer more creamy, and produce a better head, it also protects against oxidation. The brewer can therefore permit the beer to be less carbonated. The "canned draught" products have levels of carbonation similar to those in cask-conditioned ales, and less than half those in some bottled beers.
Guinness's rival, Murphy's, will soon be entering the market with its own "canned draught" dry stout, but using a slightly different system. This method - also employed by Whitbread for its newly launched canned ale, Boddington's Draught - uses only nitrogen in the capsule. It is also unusual in that the capsule is filled before the beer is put into the can.
The third Irish stout, Beamish, receives its dose of nitrogen on the canning line. So does Courage's canned ale Draught Directors'. One or two regional brewers are also using this technique. Two nationally famous ales, both from Burton-on-Trent, are getting a dose of nitrogen in a tank before they are canned. These are Draught Burton Ale, from Ind Coope, and Traditional Draught Ale, from Bass.
When I tasted these products alongside one another, it was clear that the technique used by Murphy's and Boddington's creates the creamiest result. I felt this enhanced the overall character of the toasty-tasting Murphy's Stout, though I am not sure that creaminess is appropriate in a dry, austere ale such as Boddington's.
Draught Guinness is meant to be creamy, and was. So was that company s new ale; very malty, but with a powerful hop balance. I liked its intensity of flavours, but found it somewhat cloying. It might benefit from a spicier variety of hop. Beamish was not especially creamy, but had a good, roasty, stout character. Courage Directors' seemed carbonic, with a muddy, sweetish palate, but some mitigating dryness in the finish.
Because of the effects of pasteurisation, I did not feel that any of the ales remotely matched their draught counterparts.
While stouts are sufficiently powerful in flavour to endure pasteurisation without too much damage, ales are less robust. Because of the effects of pasteurisation, I did not feel that any of the ales remotely matched their draught counterparts. The splendidly hoppy, aromatic Burton Ale came closest, followed by the fruity Bass.
However alchemic the technique, it is further evidence that national brewers are beginning to seek ways to promote our British ales, rather than devoting their every attention to poor imitations of Bohemian lagers.
If any can also find a way of putting a pub in the can, I will consider buying my beer in a supermarket.
Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAY 4, 1991
In: The Independent
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