Looking at supermarket shelves in New Zealand, it seems the can revolution is complete, but there are a surprising number of Kiwi breweries still committed to glass.
A lot of it has to the do with a boutique nature of New Zealand’s many small regional breweries. They simply cannot afford a six-figure canning line, and contract canning cuts into margins and brings its own logistical challenges.
Matt Smith, owner-brewer at the multi-award winning Brave Brewing in Hastings, is committed to bottles, and not just that, his beer is most commonly found in 500ml bottles, which are rarely seen on supermarket shelves these days.
“I’ve never had a strong opinion either way – I like cans and agree with the arguments for them: portability, how light they are, especially for shipping. The jury is probably out on whether they are more recyclable than glass,” Smith said.
“The reason for bottles for us is pretty simple: we have a botting line and we can’t afford the cost or the time involved in changing it or adding a canning line.”
When Smith moved from a 100-litre operation to his current 12hL set up three years ago, he considered a canning line but there were too many pro-glass factors at play.
One thing that tipped his thinking was his location in the wine region of Hawke’s Bay.
“We felt Hawke’s Bay, which is where we sell 85 per cent of beer, wasn’t ready for cans,” he explained.
Smith felt this was particularly the case with restaurants.
“Picturing cans being delivered to tables at winery restaurants – I don’t think we’re at the point where that’s acceptable yet,” he said.
Smith has considered a contract canner but felt it would chew into his margins too much.
His other rationale for glass was a “gut instinct” on the quality argument.
His GAI bottling machine vacuums out oxygen to a negative pressure and replaces it with CO2 twice over.
“You can’t vacuum a can to that level – the pressure would crumple the can – so I can’t imagine it being better.”
The idea that some beer is meant for cans and others for bottles drives Jason Bathgate’s decision-making at McLeod’s brewery in Waipu, north of Auckland.
An innovator of hazy IPA in New Zealand through his 802 series, Bathgate happily puts that beer in cans, along with some other unfiltered beers and seasonal IPAs. When he recently upgraded his brewery he invested in a new bottling line.
He sees the virtue of putting hop-dominant beer in cans, when it comes to classic styles such as lager, porter, and Brett-fermented beers, he’s a glass fan all the way.
“I like putting lager in glass. Germans have been doing it for decades, it’s just what you do it – pouring the classic German pilsner from a can doesn’t feel right.”
He felt the quality argument has “two sides”.
The simplicity and efficiency of a quality bottling line is offset by the small possibility of light damage through amber glass and the fact crown seals are not perfect.
“And handling bottles is so much easier than cans. On the can side, there’s no light getting in, they’re very lightweight, environmentally sustainable from energy point of view – to make them or recycle them
“But from a production point of view, they are a pain in the arse.
“As soon as you take straps off pallets it’s like a stack of cards – they can fall over. And salvaging a can after pallet falls is nearly impossible. A can is very delicate and has no structure.”
He points out that even minor dents in cans that the eye might not pick up can cause imperfections in the seal and he’s seen pictures from customers of some of his hazy beer that’s turned brown due to one bad seal in a batch.
At the moment Bathgate uses a contract canner but the difficulty around logistics means the brewery is going to invest in a canning machine from Alpha Brewing in the United States.
“Since we’ve been doing cans more consistently it has been a massive revenue generator for us,” he said.
“We can charge roughly the same for 440ml can as for a 500ml bottle and the packaging cost is the same but we save 60ml of beer.”
As McLeod’s has grown from a brewpub to a nationally recognised brand with the beer consistently bringing in awards, there is now pressure from the supermarkets to put more beers into cans and specifically six-packs.
“While we’re naturally gravitating towards more cans – we are getting pressure from supermarkets who’d really like us to do six-packs of cans.”
He’s resisting that push for now as his brewery doesn’t make the volume necessary for the format to pay off.
As for his old bottling line? It was sold to Mike’s in New Plymouth, reflecting the nature of the ecosystem in New Zealand where secondhand bottling lines are the more affordable option for the many regional breweries.
The small production volumes in many New Zealand breweries go a long way to determining what they invest in packaging.
Cassels in Christchurch is a relatively large volume producer by New Zealand standards and has only just made the decision to invest in a canning line to sit alongside their bottling line.
For executive brewer Simon Bretherton, the decision is a response to a “market trend” but he also felt canning lines have come a long way in recent years in terms of what small scale New Zealand breweries could afford.
“We talked about cans seven or eight years ago but for small breweries, even having the right bottling technology available is something that’s only been developed in the last couple of decades.
“Canning equipment’s been on a similar path but just a bit behind bottling technology. It’s only been in relatively recent times – compared with bottling – that you can get a canning plant on a small scale that’s going to the job 100 per cent correctly.
“There’s always been canned beer but for small breweries like us to do it properly, it’s only relatively recently that equipment has been available. Seven or eight years ago, what was available wasn’t to our standards.”
The predominance of bottled beer in New Zealand is reflected in the decision by GABS to change the rules around their inaugural New Zealand can design awards.
After the success of the awards in New Zealand, they decided to run them in New Zealand – with entries closing tomorrow (Friday 30th October). But soon after announcing the competition, they expanded it to include bottles.
“Of about 160 breweries we looked at, only about 70 were packaging their beers in cans (a much lower percentage than in Australia),” said Craig Williams of GABS.
“Hence the change to include all label art in the inaugural awards and ensure the campaign is as inclusive as possible.”
Breweries wanting to enter their packaging designs in the GABS design competition can visit the GABS Hub with entries closing 30 October.