This beer will blow up

Today we are talking about exploding beer cans, brewing fans. It’s pretty emotive stuff it would seem. For those of you who do not hang out on social media, a trend that has come over from America for syrupy sweet and thick beers made with lots of fruit pulp. Often the fruit is added to a sour beer, in the interests of balancing out the flavour profile. These adjuncts (something that is added to the beer on top of the main ingredients needed to actually make the product) are introduced after the fermentation has taken place to give the specific texture and flavour that people, some people, love. But, that means that a lot of fermentable sugars are being added to those beers. If there is any yeast left in the liquid (because it has not been pasteurized for example, or microbial contamination takes place during the canning process perhaps) then a secondary fermentation will take place. This will create a little bit more alcohol and, more importantly, carbon dioxide. A can is already a pressurised container. If the pressure gets too high, the can will explode.

Why is this such a hot topic right now?

Because more cans have gone pop. The brewery in question has, hesitantly, issued a product recall. Now all across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook people are getting their knickers in a twist about the rights and wrongs of the situation. I thought I’d put together an handy FAQ to help you understand the situation a bit more.

If someone’s cans explode, does it mean they are a bad brewer?

No. Or more properly, not necessarily. No matter how stringent your health and safety procedures are, there is always an outside chance of a sneaky infection worming its way in. Just look at Guinness recently, who had to recall their new non-alcoholic line just a couple of weeks after it hit the shops due to fears of a microbial contamination. Now they weren’t necessarily afraid the containers would pop in this instance, but it just goes to show you can develop a product for four years and presumably have state of the art kit and you still aren’t immune from infections.

What does make for bad practice though, in my opinion, is making an unstable beer (that could explode) on purpose because you think the flavour is cool or whatever and justifying it by saying that it won’t explode if it’s kept refrigerated. Making a product you know to be potentially unsafe is not good practice and could lead to greater regulation of the whole industry.

Equally bad would be discovering a problem with a batch of beer and not issuing an immediate recall. It may be no-one’s fault that contamination has occurred. But if it has you have a duty of care to deal with it. It’s not the consumer’s fault. Hopefully you have insurance that covers the loss, but maybe not. I would assume this is one of the potential risks of being a brewer and like all risks working hard to mitigate it will ultimately make you better at your craft. The cleaner you work, the better you understand the science of brewing and packaging, the less exposed you are to these problems. And you’ll make better beer too!

Someone said this issue can be avoided through cold chain?

If a can is kept cold enough, any fermentation taking place will slow down or even stop. The argument people are suggesting is that a temperature controlled supply chain from brewery right through to the consumer would stop any issues with exploding beer cans. Well yes, it would. We have unbroken cold chain supply in the UK, even to ship beers from breweries in the States to fridges in our home bottle shops. Amazing stuff!

But it exists because hop flavours and aromas are so volatile. Exposure to warmer temperatures causes these compounds to degrade more quickly. So to ensure you taste the purest expression of what the brewer intended you to experience, cold chain is important for hop forward beers. It is not intended to guard against the degradation of the container it is stored in!

I saw one craft beer shop from the East Midlands on their high horse saying that they hoped exploding beer cans would mean their customers would finally learn to store their beers properly – in the fridge. No. This made me angry. Keep beers fridged for freshness, not to avoid can bombs. They have confused two totally different issues.

But if you kept milk out on the side for three days it would be your own fault for getting sick when you drank it. It’s clearly labelled to refrigerate.

Some people are arguing that because they have added a warning about storage to the packaging that makes it all OK.

Firstly, let’s be clear. Suggesting that if someone gets injured because they didn’t store the beer in the fridge it is their own damn fault is insane. You cannot buy anything in the supermarket that explodes in ambient conditions.

Storage instructions to keep a short shelf life product fresh are a very different proposition to a label telling you to keep something refrigerated to prevent it from redecorating your kitchen with sticky and potentially lacerating your hand. Milk doesn’t spontaneously explode. (Although if it does please send me the YouTube link).

One champion told me I was exaggerating when I pointed this out on Facebook. Truly? The worst injury I have seen attributed to a beer can explosion is a deep cut requiring a few stitches. But I’ve done a lot of grocery shopping in my life, and I haven’t received contusions that require medical attention from any of it. Shifting the blame to the consumer is not acceptable. To cause an aluminium can to pop its lid, the pressure rises to higher than a car tire. There is no guarantee the rupture will stick to the weak points of the container (where the lid fixes to the body) so who knows where naughty shards of metal might end up.

Stop complaining! It’s damaging a small business when they need our support more than ever!

As I’ve already pointed out, these issues can affect a brewery of any size. But a product recall will be far more damaging to a smaller one. However, a brewery that doesn’t do the right thing doesn’t deserve your custom. There are over 1800 breweries in this country. Let’s encourage them to indulge in good practices by supporting the ones that brew good stable beers, instead of propping up the indefensible. Any brewery suffering can explosions (of which there are many examples in recent years) has the opportunity to deal with it swiftly and effectively. They will be applauded and I don’t doubt gain a few customers because of it.

I care a lot about supporting small businesses, but not at any costs when they make a crap product. Pick your battles carefully and choose your loyalties wisely. And remember you can change your mind!

Who cares… this isn’t beer! It doesn’t even taste like beer!

Beer encompasses a broad spectrum of flavours and textures. The smoothie style beer is not for every one. Giant bubbles caused by coconut fats equally don’t float all boats. But some people like them. And they should be able to enjoy them safely. We can do without the nostalgia police harking back to when ‘beer tasted like beer’ and muddying the waters further. Lager has never tasted like porter, but they both taste like beer, innit.

Is it possible to put live beer in a can without the risk of explosion?

Yes it is! I spoke to Justin Hawke from Moor Beer Company of Bristol. They exclusively make naturally carbonated live beer these days and are real pioneers. In 2016 they were the first (and still only I think) brewery to receive accreditation from CAMRA for putting real ale in a can. I have reproduced his response in full, because it’s really interesting. As you’ll see, Justin is more in the ‘beer that tastes like beer’ camp than I am!

This is a problem of great concern to me since craft breweries started canning, and is definitely the thing that keeps me up at night. Even with the best technologies and processes in place things can and do go wrong. When a global brewer like Guinness has to recall their brand new release then you can see that it can happen to anyone. We’ve had a few hiccups along the way, which is immensely frustrating.  No one is immune.

Some of the key things for me are always intent, design and execution. I think the pendulum has swung from the extremely conservative range of beers available only a decade or two ago to an ‘anything goes’ extreme. Adjunct laden exploding cans are perhaps the most visible representation of this.  Things need to be brought back into balance, and I think we’re starting to see that sentiment echoed by consumers more and more who want ‘drinkable’ beer.

Many of the new releases I have seen being hyped are simply malt based alco-pops laden with adjuncts containing various sugars and chemicals that can have unanticipated results when they go out into the real world. These types of drinks would have previously been produced by global drinks giants and inevitably would have been pasteurised, thereby making them shelf stable and safe (although perhaps not for your teeth).

With the wide and low cost availability of canning, any producer can put a product out to market. Consumers are largely to blame, with their constant demand for new, more extreme beverages. Many breweries and drinks producers are more than willing to throw anything at the market to see what sticks. That for me is bad intent. I like to go back to the old adage of “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” Most of these releases seem to me that they should have been left in the R&D department and not seen commercial release. But as long as consumers are willing to pay for them and try something once, then producers will feed the market.  Quite simply, stop buying them and they will disappear!

That’s not to say that all additives are bad, which brings us back to design and execution. If you’re going to release a commercial product there are many questions to ask yourself. How well do I understand how the raw materials will impact the final product? What are my capabilities and processes, from the lab all the way to final packaging? How does this product support my vision and brand? What is my appetite for risk and how capable is my team at mitigating it?

The ease and low cost of entry to putting a commercial beverage on the market, especially in the UK, makes me nervous to try much of what is currently on offer. There are big gaps in intent, design and execution. Thankfully, some breweries, old and new, have put excellent equipment, processes, people and intent in place. I trust those to get it right near enough most of the time, and am willing to forgive them when they get it wrong. As consumers increasingly exert their power to insist on quality, drinkable beers, we’ll see the pendulum brought back into a happy balance.

Justin Hawke, Moor Beer Company

Where do you stand?

So what do you think? Where do you stand on exploding beer cans?

(Definitely don’t stand on exploding beer cans)

I hope I’ve helped to clarify some of the issues, although I’m no brewer so I’m happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood the arguments! Comment below (keep it PG) and let’s see how we go.

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3 Responses

  1. Dom says:

    I’ve also seen it suggested that these beers, often sold at high ABV, could in fact have much lower alcohol content due to the addition of all the fruit purée

  2. mr jamie j stenson says:

    perfectly balanced article and great quote from the awesome moor team

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