To Can, or Not to Can
By Ryan Hansen from Big Pop Brewing
Canning home brew is a great topic that has been on a lot of brewer’s minds. The ability and practice to can our home brews seems to either be the peak of packaging, or an expense in time and gear that isn’t interesting. Let’s dive into some pros and cons, the process canning requires, the gear and empty cans, and the multiple ways to fill those cans. If you’ve found yourself on the fence, then I hope this article will help you decide whether, or not canning is for you.
The basic process for canning is about as simple as bottling, but there are some different variables to consider, like oxidation, carbonation levels, and time. If you’re considering canning, I’m assuming you’re already kegging and have access to external c02 that you can regulate.
Let’s start from the beginning: necessary equipment to can your homebrew
Canning requires a canning machine
, duh. A can seamer is a straightforward machine that will lock a newly lidded can into place and then spin that in place while the operator pulls in levers that press calibrated rollers into the edge of the can’s top edge, crimping the can’s lip onto the edge of the can. Once you stop the spinning you just release the can and you’ve got a sealed can. There are several canning machines designed for the home brew level, but the main ones being talked about are the Cannular by Kegland, the drill operated BENCHMK by Oktober Design, and the SL1 from Oktober Design. As I write this the Cannular costs approximately $550, the SL1 is $880, and the drill operated BENCHMK is $500. All three are good options and have stellar reviews. I use the Oktober SL1 and have never had a botched seam, not even once. Low fills, and oxidation… yes, user error, but never a bad seam. Two things of note, the drill operated Oktober machine will require you to have an external power drill for operating it, but for the cost savings that may be a good option even though it adds an element of clunkiness to the process.
are the next gear needed. No longer do you have to ask your neighbors for the empty bottles that they undoubtedly recycled weeks ago. Cans are single use. Once you pick your canning machine, you purchase your empties from whichever vendor that was. They generally come in boxes that contain 192 (16oz cans), or 240 (12oz cans) for just under $90 per box (plus shipping if applicable). The boxes of blank cans include the lids as well. Just mind which end type (lid) your canning machine requires. Could be standard B64, SuperEnd, or 360End, for example. The lids all work about the same, but the chuck on your machine will dictate which one it works with. Last thing on cans, there are times when a home brewer may have the opportunity to make a large batch for an event like a wedding or party. Oktober Design offers the ability to order custom labeled cans for such events! I can’t think of a more baller move than to have beautifully designed cans to hold my craft beer creations. It’s pricey to do it this way, but still, pretty cool.
Filling the cans
is next. You can go directly from your taps, use a bottling gun, or a can filling system like the DuoFiller, or Tapcooler’s Nanocanner. There’s the (hopefully) obvious step of rinsing every can and its lid in sanitizer before filling. I just dunk the whole can in StarSan solution before filling and grab a cap that has been sitting in a separate bowl of sanitizer right next to the canning machine. This sanitizing works the same for all the options we will cover next.
Filling from taps is quick and with the right serving pressure will cause little foaming so you can fill the can all the way to the top without leaving a foam head inside the can (that’s a low fill). This method has the obvious downfall of oxidation and will cause you to experience some loss of carbonation. If you’re heading out the door to a party where all the cans will be consumed that day, then this method works fine. It’s how many breweries are filling crowlers. Just know that shelf life is limited.
Next is the beer gun
. I used this for bottling when I was still doing that and it’s a very common method used by home brewers. There are multiple beer guns on the market, and they all do about the same thing: one trigger releases c02 so you can purge the can of as much oxygen as possible (three to five seconds) before pulling the liquid trigger which allows a gentle fill from the bottom up. I attach my liquid post to a fully carbonated keg that is one or two psi higher than the desired carbonation level (there’s some carbonation loss as you can your brews) and then reduce the gas pressure to the keg to about five psi to push the beer through the line and out of the bottle gun. It can take a few pours to dial in the desired flow rate that you want, and I find it useful to test the flow rate in a transparent glass, so I know I’m not causing excessive foam. Once the beer is at the top of the can’s edge you remove the gun and that leaves just the right amount of foam at the top for you to put the sanitized lid on right before sealing the lid with the canning machine. Lift the bar that locks the can in place, turn on the motor that spins the can, then gently pull the seaming arm in both directions until it reaches its preset limits on the right and left sides (canning machines may vary on which direction to pull first). Turn off the spinning motor, release the can from the vice and voila! You’ve got a sealed can. I usually dunk the filled can into sanitizing solution to rinse the outside of the can.
The next filling method is the Tapcooler Nanocanner
. This is a cool piece of equipment. Instead of having an open, like have with the beer gun, the nanocanner locks in the top of the can with a sealed gasket which allows the can to be purged with c02 before filling the can at a regulated pace just like we see with bottle counterpressure fillers. The process is a bit slower and has more steps because you’re manually alternating the purge valve and the fill valve for each can. The positive is that you’re getting a more oxygen free environment while the can fills.
The last can filling method I’ll mention is the DuoFiller, a Norwegian made double can filler made specifically for home brewers. This machine does the same purge-then-fill steps as the beer guns, but it has the benefit of doing two cans simultaneously and automatically. I love the speed that this system allows me to fill cans much faster than doing them one at a time – almost twice as fast. Once the sanitized can is in place under the spouts you simply press the button on the side you want to fill and it runs c02 (you can program the purge time, but it defaults to six seconds) and then switches to filling the can from the bottom up (again, you can program the volume it’ll dispense).
Things to note about canning:
Temperature: beer that is warm will foam. Keeping the keg in your kegerator or refrigerator is a good idea so that it’s not warming up as you go through your canning routine. If ambient temperature in your brewery is warm or hot, then I’d advise keeping the sanitizing solution you rinse your cans in as cold as possible, so it drops the temp of the cans right before use.
Sanitation: aside from sanitizing the cans before filling you’ll want to disassemble the beer gun, Nanocanner, or duofiller and thoroughly clean and sanitize all the lines and components so they’re ready for use next time.
C02 pressure: there’s no fixed answer here. Every system is different and the pressure you need will be dictated by line length and inside diameter. For me the serving pressure that prevents foaming off the keg is usually about five psi, but again, each filling method and setup will vary, and it will take some tinkering to dial in.
Light: clear bottles will allow sunlight to skunk a beer in minutes, brown bottles do better, but cans protect our beer completely.
PITA: buying, labeling, cleaning, scraping labels, and begging your neighbors to return empty bottles is a thing we just don’t have to worry about with cans because they’re single use. Before you go all Greenpeace on me, aluminum is indefinitely recyclable. Just make sure the cans end up in the correct bin.
I’ll conclude by saying that I believe that the ability to can up our home brewed creations is amazing. I love the single use (please recycle!) and simplicity cans offer us. Despite the cost of equipment and blank cans, the transportability and shelf stability of cans in unmatched, and to be completely honest, it feels macho to show up with custom cans of delicious home brew.
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