John Updike’s Paean To The Beer Can

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Today is one of my favorite author’s birthdays, John Updike. He grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town that I did — Shillington — and we both escaped to a life of writing. Though I think you’ll agree he did rather better than I did with the writing thing, not that I’m complaining. I once wrote to him about a harebrained idea I had about writing updated Olinger stories from the perspective of the next generation (his Olinger Stories were a series of short tales set in Olinger, which was essentially his fictional name for Shillington). He wrote me back a nice note of encouragement on a hand-typed postcard that he signed, which today hangs in my office as a reminder and for inspiration. Anyway, this little gem he wrote for the The New Yorker in 1964 is a favorite of mine and I now post it each year in his honor. Enjoy.

Beer Can by John Updike

This seems to be an era of gratuitous inventions and negative improvements. Consider the beer can. It was beautiful — as beautiful as the clothespin, as inevitable as the wine bottle, as dignified and reassuring as the fire hydrant. A tranquil cylinder of delightfully resonant metal, it could be opened in an instant, requiring only the application of a handy gadget freely dispensed by every grocer. Who can forget the small, symmetrical thrill of those two triangular punctures, the dainty pfff, the little crest of suds that foamed eagerly in the exultation of release? Now we are given, instead, a top beetling with an ugly, shmoo-shaped tab, which, after fiercely resisting the tugging, bleeding fingers of the thirsty man, threatens his lips with a dangerous and hideous hole. However, we have discovered a way to thwart Progress, usually so unthwartable. Turn the beer can upside down and open the bottom. The bottom is still the way the top used to be. True, this operation gives the beer an unsettling jolt, and the sight of a consistently inverted beer can might make people edgy, not to say queasy. But the latter difficulty could be eliminated if manufacturers would design cans that looked the same whichever end was up, like playing cards. What we need is Progress with an escape hatch.

Now that’s writing. I especially like his allusion to the beauty of the clothespin as I am an unabashed lover of clothespins.

In case you’re not as old and curmudgeonly as me — and who is? — he’s talking about the transition to the pull-tab beer can (introduced between 1962-64) to replace the flat punch-top can that required you to punch two triangular holes in the top of the can in order to drink the beer and pour it in a glass.
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The pull-tab (at left) replaced the punch top (right).

Originally known as the Zip Top, Rusty Cans has an informative and entertaining history of them. Now you know why a lot of bottle openers still have that triangle-shaped punch on one end.
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So essentially, he’s lamenting the death of the old style beer can which most people considered a pain to open and downright impossible should you be without the necessary church key opener. He is correct, however, that the newfangled suckers were sharp and did cut fingers and lips on occasion, even snapping off without opening from time to time. But you still have to laugh at the unwillingness to embrace change (and possibly progress) even though he was only 32 at the time; hardly a normally curmudgeonly age.

Never Say Never: Samuel Adams Boston Lager Cans

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Lots of big announcements in the beer world this week, as the Boson Beer Co. made public today their plan to release Samuel Adams Boston Lager in cans this summer. I can’t seem to find the original source this morning, but I clearly recall several years ago that Boston Beer founder Jim Koch was quoted at one time that Samuel Adams beer would never be in cans, but over time his stance began to soften, and by 2010 he was warming to the idea. At that time, he told Beer Business Daily that he did believe that someday Samuel Adams would be in cans, and was still looking at the BPA in liners as a not-quite-resolved-yet issue. Once upon a time, their 2005 “Beer Bill of Rights” included as Article VI: “Beer shall be offered in bottles, not cans, so that no brew is jeopardized with the taste of metal.”

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That issue has largely been solved with the use of an organic polymer, but Boston Beer has apparently taken it one step farther, designing their own type of can for the project, “the Sam Can.”

From the press release:

Samuel Adams announced today that for the first time it plans to offer Samuel Adams Boston Lager in a can – but not just any can. The new can design — the result of two years of ergonomic and sensory research and testing — aims to provide a drinking experience that is closer to the taste and comfort of drinking beer from a glass. The “Sam Can,” as the brewers call it, will hit shelves in early summer 2013, just in time for drinking occasions that call for the convenience of a can such as sporting events, boating or the beach.

“The debate over bottles vs. cans has been a sticking point for brewers in the craft beer community for years,” says Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Samuel Adams. “In the past, I had my doubts about putting Sam Adams in a can because I wasn’t convinced that Boston Lager would taste as good as it does from a bottle. But cans have changed. And I believe we’ve designed a can that provides a slight but noticeably better drinking experience than the standard beer can.”

Koch and the other brewers at Samuel Adams first worked with can manufacturer Ball Corporation to understand can design, technology, and how to package premium beer in cans. The brewers then worked with a design team at IDEO, a recognized global design firm, and finally enlisted the help of sensory expert, Roy Desrochers of GEI Consultants. Desrochers, a recognized beer flavor expert for the Master Brewer’s Association of the Americas (MBAA), has provided counsel to the brewing industry for almost three decades. With Desrochers’ help, Koch studied every aspect of the new can, from how it could potentially impact the flavor of Samuel Adam’s flagship Boston Lager to the ergonomics of how the beer flows from the can and hits the taste receptors on a drinker’s tongue.

“I worked with Jim and the other brewers at Sam Adams on an ergonomic and flavor study to understand the benefits of the new can,” says Desrochers. “The flared lip and wider top of the new Sam Can work in concert to deliver the beer in a way that makes the flavor closer to drinking out of a glass. Although subtle, this can delivers a more pronounced, more balanced flavor experience – something that was very important to the brewers. The extended lip of the can also creates a smoother, more comfortable overall drinking experience.”

The difference in drinking out of the new can as compared to a standard can will be modest, but drinkers should notice enhanced flavors and a more comfortable experience. The position of the can opening and wider lid, naturally opens up the mouth allowing for more air flow and positions the drinker’s nose closer to the hop aromas of the beer. A little known fact is that most of what we think we taste is actually what we smell – that’s why it’s hard to taste food with a stuffed up nose. Drinkers also noticed that the extended, curved lip of the can delivered the beer to the front of the palate to maximize the early enjoyment of the malt sweetness.

Koch’s end goal in developing a new can is to provide drinkers with the best possible Boston Lager drinking experience when they prefer the convenience of a can, like on the golf course or at the beach, without compromising the taste of his first and favorite beer, Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Celebrating the flavors and ingredients in Boston Lager is what also led to the development of the Samuel Adams Boston Lager Pint Glass in 2007, also the result of a lengthy research project to enhance the beer drinking experience.

“The new Sam Can required a million dollar investment in special equipment tooling along with time, research and testing. This new can will also cost more than the standard can to produce. It may seem a little crazy to make that kind of investment, but we felt the slight improvement in the drinking experience was worth the expense. We made decisions based on the beer, not on the bottom line,” Koch explains. “We’ve done tastings here at the brewery, with Sam Adams drinkers and our experts, “and now, we’re proud to launch Samuel Adams Boston Lager in cans. We have a vessel that gives our drinkers the best tasting Samuel Adams in a can.”

Among the many advantages of cans is that drinkers prefer cans in certain circumstances where bottles are often not allowed or convenient, such as beaches, parks, pools, sporting events, boats and airplanes. Samuel Adams Boston Lager in cans will be available in 12-packs nationwide beginning early summer, for a suggested retail price of $14.99-17.99 (price varies by market).

You can also read additional information about what went in to the design of the can at BostInno and also at Boston.com’s Sam Adams: Now (finally) in a can.

Of course, the fact that many other regional breweries have put their beer in cans, too — Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Brooklyn Brewery, RedHook, etc. — has to have been a factor, too. Still, for can fans this is great news. Cans have outsold beer in bottles for the big brewers for decades, and at least as long as 1980, if not longer, so it only makes sense that as craft brewers grow larger that such a popular package would become part of their portfolios, as well, as they continue to take a bigger and bigger piece of the nationwide beer pie.

Beer Can Advent Calendar

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This looks like a fun project for the DIY-minded beer lover, with a tip of the hat to KegWorks. The Do-It-Yourself website Instructables has step-by-step instructions on how to make your own Beer Advent Calendar with cans of beer instead of those little chocolates that most of them have behind each daily door. We also get a Lego Advent Calendar every year for the kids, but a beer Advent Calendar sounds even better. Check it out. Be sure to read the comments, too, where suggestions on how to do the same thing with beer bottles can be found.

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Naked Beer Cans

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This is an interesting design, generic beer cans, made to look as if they were essentially clear and showing the contents inside, albeit in an idealized way. They were created by Timur Salikhov, a designer from St. Petersburg, Russia.

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He starts with the premise “Why hide what good beer looks like?”

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And then he designed the cans to appear as if they were a freshly poured glass of beer. It’s fun concept and apparently he’d like to sell the idea to a brewery. I think the only unfortunate aspect of his design is that without additional branding on the package, it may look too generic. BUt it sure looks like a beer I’d like to open.

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Three Decades Of Beer Containers

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Here’s an interesting little snapshot of the various containers beer comes in over the last thirty years from the Container Recycling Institute. In Container Types Used For Beer in the U.S., 1981-2010 , they detail how beer in bottles have increased steadily 15% over that time and now make up almost 40% of how beer is sold. At the same time, draft beer has receded. Cans are still on top, but dipped significantly beginning in the 1990s, but in recent years have started to rebound.

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Red Stripe Sound Sculpture

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This is kind of fun, and certainly an interesting way to reuse discarded beer cans. Red Stripe is apparently launching a marketing campaign under the banner “Make with a Red Stripe” and this is the first one. Below is the description from YouTube and the video itself is below here. And a hat tip to Adam for the link.

Make Something from Nothing, the first of a series of cultural projects called ‘Make with a Red Stripe’, features a unique sound sculpture created by sound artist Yuri Suzuki, in collaboration with DJ Al Fingers, singer/songwriter Gappy Ranks and designer Matthew Kneebone.

The 2.5 metre high, fully functioning sound sculpture is made using thousands of recycled Red Stripe beer cans partly collected at this year’s Notting Hill carnival. The project celebrates the DIY culture of the brand’s Jamaican roots, with Reggae, Dub and Jamaican music influences as well.

Make Something From Nothing debuts on 16th November with an exclusive launch party at Village Underground. Visit Facebook for more information.

Beer Can Dads 2012

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I posted these last year a couple of weeks before Father’s Day, but figured today was a good day to take another look at them. Last year, the good folks at Every Guyed designed eight beer can dads.

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Here was the idea:

To celebrate Father’s Day, EveryGuyed and Moxy Creative House have teamed up once again to deliver the second installment of the ‘Cheers!’. This time we had creative director Glenn Michael raise a glass — and his brush — to 8 iconic animated dads, re-envisioning them as beer cans.

When you were a kid, Father’s Day was a pretty boring affair. Now you’re of age, and all of a sudden you have the chance to do something with your dad that he’ll actually enjoy: share a cold one together.

See if you can guess all of the cartoon dads. You can see all eight of them in the slideshow above. The answers can found at the bottom of last year’s post.

Now I want my own dad can. What would yours look like?