A guest at a recent private beer-tasting event sent me into a rant. We were discussing the relative value of cans when he suggested that the reason some people might taste a metallic flavor in canned beer is that they are putting their mouth all over the top of the can. At that moment I was seized by the spirit of Ninkasi. “At least 85% of what you taste is actually what you smell.” I said. “If you drink from the can or bottle you smell nothing. You are cutting yourself off from the majority of the experience of the beer.” I ended with the admonition, “I don’t care what kind of glass you drink from. Just drink from a glass.”
Now the Boston Beer Company is telling people to drink Sam Adams Boston Lager from the can.
Well, not really. They still want you to drink it from a glass, but they acknowledge that sometimes that’s impossible. Maybe you’re hiking or canoeing far into the backcountry where glass is not allowed. Cans have long been touted as a solution to such situations. So should you just accept that you will only get 15% enjoyment out of that backcountry quaff? Ever the innovator in beer-service technology, Boston Beer says, “No.”
Following up on the Sam Adams Perfect Pint glass and the Spiegelau IPA glass, they have revolutionized the beer can. Called the “Sam Can,” the new package is the result of two years of “intensive sensory research.” It features a wider lid to allow more airflow into your mouth, a more centered can opening to bring the beer closer to your nose, and an extended lip to deliver the beer to the tip of your tongue.
I was skeptical. Really? These little changes were going to make a big difference? The Sam Adams press release did a good job of adding to that skepticism. Like the media reporting on the underdog in a presidential debate – “he just has to avoid looking like a complete idiot” – the materials stressed that the difference was “subtle, but noticeable.” The bar was set low. Maybe they had learned a lesson from the over-hype of the IPA glass.
I was skeptical, but curious. So when the media package arrived at my door containing one regular can and one Sam Can, I had to give it a whirl. I opened both at the same time for a side-by-side face-off. Just for comparison I poured a bit from each can into a glass.
Of course the beer in the glass tasted the best. Really, drink your beer from a glass! But to my surprise, the Sam Can delivered on its promise, and then some. The improvement in flavor was more than “subtle, but noticeable.” I found there to be a significant difference in all three areas of sensory evaluation; aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel.
Aroma: In this area I won’t say that the difference was huge, but it was there. Aroma was non-existent when drinking from the regular can. While the Sam Can didn’t deliver the aromatic blast of drinking from a glass, hops and malt were noticeable.
Mouthfeel: The regular can delivered a beer that was unpleasantly prickly. Carbonation felt excessive, lightening the impression of the beer’s body. The Sam Can smoothed out the bubbles. The impression was more like that of a beer that has been poured into a glass and allowed to degas. Boston Lager isn’t a full-bodied beer by any stretch, but the reduced carbonation allowed the viscosity that is there to come through.
Flavor: The beer from the regular can was bland and sharply bitter. Spicy hops almost totally obliterated the malt, leaving only the faintest impression of caramel. The excessive carbonation mentioned above gave it a distinct carbonic bite that amplified the already harsh bitterness. From the Sam Can the beer was much more balanced. Bitterness was there, but kept in check by noticeable malt sweetness. Spicy hop flavors made their appearance, but malty caramel provided a welcome counterpoint. It was a much more pleasurable quaff. The cynical thought crossed my mind that they had perhaps put a different beer in each can, but poured into a glass the two were indistinguishable.
I went in a non-believer. I came out convinced. The Sam Can may not be an earth-shaking development, but the difference is real. Still, drink your beer from a glass.