Conor McCormak, pictured above, is the Winemaker at Brooklyn Winery, where he oversees all aspects of wine production from sourcing premium fruit from vineyards to the bottling of 5,000 cases annually. When his hands weren’t busy handling grapes and cradling his daughter Madeleine, born earlier this year, he and Garrett chatted over email about the similarities in beer and wine packaging trends…
Conor: Hi Garrett. I have noticed an increase in microbreweries using cans (some with very elaborate designs) for their beer along with a couple wineries trying it out. Do you find there to be a difference in flavor, quality, or shelf life with canned beer versus glass bottle? I haven’t put any wine in can as I would suspect that the acids would react with the aluminum.
Garrett: Good question! We’ve been putting our beer in cans for years now, but until a few years ago we largely confined them to places glass wasn’t allowed – stadiums, golf courses and the like. Slowly but surely, however, cans are becoming seen as a legitimate package, shaking off the “cheap industrial beer” image that they had until recently.
The reasons are largely two-fold. First is the realization by brewers that modern canning doesn’t have any technical downside and even has some advantages. Levels of oxidation in cans, once much higher than in bottles, have now been brought under control. That’s important, because oxygen destroys beer pretty quickly. Polymer can linings mean that the liquid in the can never actually touches metal. Cans are also entirely opaque, which protects beer from one of its worst enemies, which is light (which reacts with hop compounds to cause “skunky” aromatics technically referred to as “lightstruck”).
The second thing is the new availability of relatively inexpensive canning lines. A canning line has traditionally been a large, very expensive piece of equipment, something that could only be afforded by a huge company. Because of the new prominence of small-scale brewers (and other beverage producers) and improved technologies, packaging equipment manufacturers now make canning lines that some smaller breweries can afford.
In many ways, the can is the “screw-cap” of the beer industry. Most people feel “better” about bottles than they do about cans, the same way that most people feel better about corks in wine bottles. These images, however, are increasingly divorced from any actual quality concerns. Some breweries now use the retro/hipster/ironic qualities of the can as part of their brand identity. That’s not really our style, but our cans do look pretty cool. The real downside of cans, in my opinion, is that it seems that most people who drink canned beer are probably drinking it directly out of the can rather than pouring the beer into the glass. No brewer really likes that – we work hard on features like a beer’s aroma and foam, and we like people to experience them. But we also know that sometimes people are drinking beer on fishing boats, not at the dinner table, so we’ll let that one slide!
I’ve seen a lot of different packages for wine, and bag-in-box has really become well pretty accepted in Europe. Do you see any possibility that anyone will can decent wine? Given how many highly acidic fruit juices come in cans, I assume that any barriers are cultural rather than technical, yes?
Conor: I think that it is possible to put decent wine in a can, but I doubt it would ever breach the “over $20″ shelf due to cultural barriers. Not to say there isn’t plenty of decent wine under $20 that could benefit from a unique packaging option, just that consumers often react slowly to such big changes making it a risk for producers putting it out there.
The bag-in-box wine has been around for quite some time but has always remained in the lower tier of both price and quality. It is true that cultural barriers will continue to inhibit any major market growth, but the plastic based bag used to store the product cannot protect it from oxidation over time. Some of the bags are augmented with a metallic lining to slow down the oxidation, but plastic is very porous. The only kind of wine that might survive the “bottling” to drinking would be one that is sterile filtered, or worse chemically filtered, and generally stripped of any soul.
The truth is, I don’t see many wineries risking their brand being stigmatized as “box wine” quality unless they do so under the guise of another label. Some of the big players who are looking to place wine in every major super market around the world might be able to make a couple bucks by putting out mediocre bag-in-box wine, but for higher end producers and drinkers I think box wine will remain on the bottom shelf.
Since starting at Brooklyn Winery, I have been experimenting with wine on tap. While there have been some kinks to work out in the delivery process, I am happy with the results overall. Some of the major concerns have been the length of time from tapping to kicking the keg while maintaining a fresh pour, and tartrate build-up in the lines.
How long can a keg of beer stay fresh once tapped? Does it depend on the style of beer?
Beer lines are often cleaned (or should be), but I have heard that poorly maintained lines can lead to “tap sickness”. Can you explain or debunk this?
Garrett: A keg should be, in the best circumstances, a perfectly clean and sterile container full of beer that’s free of extraneous microbes. In real life, however, the biological axiom “everything is everywhere” applies. So once the keg is breached by tapping, it comes into contact with the inner surface of the beer lines, which may or may not be pristine. Well maintained beer lines should be cleaned (with caustic soda, then flushed with water) every two weeks at the very minimum. Otherwise, solids from the beer start to build in lines, and this is where problems start. Anything growing in the beer lines may eventually make its way into the keg and spoil the keg. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that there are no known pathogens that can survive in beer, so spoiled beer can’t make you sick. But it sure doesn’t taste good, so proper practice is critical. We try to make sure that any bar or restaurant that’s serving our beer finishes out a keg within a week or so. At a place where they clean their system frequently and sell beer quickly, the beer will tend to taste great….and the converse is true too. Fortunately, these days most proprietors are paying proper attention to their draft systems and beer tastes better than ever.