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Can, Bottle, Keg: The Humbling of Mr. Foster

yukon baxter

Yukon’s Bob Baxter poses with some of his award-winning Yukon Red. Photo courtesy of Yukon News.

I have written before about how beer tastes different depending on how it is served – in particular bottle vs. keg (some examples are  here and here and here). I have mused about doing a side-by-side-by-side test to compare the flavour profile of beer in the can, in the bottle and in the keg. Last week I finally got my opportunity to do exactly that, thanks to the good folks at Yukon Brewing.

Yukon’s owner, Bob Baxter, was in town last week on brewery business, and we set up a test – the “Yukon Challenge” if you will. Bob brought with him from Whitehorse a bottle, a can, and a stainless steel growler of Yukon Red. The growler was filled from their tap system the night before he left. He made sure all three were from the same batch, a relatively fresh one, and he handled them identically. So, we controlled our variables as much as we could. You could argue the growler isn’t an exact replica of getting a pint fresh from the tap, and that would be a fair point. However, we thought that was better than using a tap in Edmonton, which would have come from a different batch and we couldn’t guarantee identical handling of the beer (why Bob didn’t just buy a extra ticket for the keg, put a tie on it and say it was his business partner is beyond me…).

We had Yukon Dave (who actually does have a last name, although no one uses it) pour the beer so that we were blind to where each sample came from. Both Bob and I took part in the test. I had expected to quickly identify the keg version, given my past experience. For me the real test would be if I could taste a difference between the bottle and the can.

One beer stood out as clearly different. It had a softer aroma, a more rounded body and a maltier presence. The other two were much closer in their profile. However, I could detect that one was sharper and slightly more hop character and a drying linger. Mind you that was a subtle difference, to be sure, but noticeable. Bob had a similar impression from the three beer.

So the softer one was the keg, right? Well that is what Bob and I thought. As it turns out, it was the can. The keg was the sharper, hoppier sample, with the bottle falling inbetween.

What to make of that?

Even after a few days of pondering it, I am still  not quite certain what happened. There are two main things to consider here. First is why the kegged version didn’t jump out as markedly different, as in my previous experiences. Here I think it is a lesson in not being too prescriptive when talking about how kegs alter the flavour impression. The beer was different, subtly from the other two. My mistake was assuming the kegged sample would be softer and more rounded. Clearly beer reacts in different ways. Some beer, like the Lead Dog, get softer, while others, such as the Red, seem sharper. I think it is safe to state that beer on tap presents differently than beer in bottles, I just need to be more careful not to be too sweeping in my pronouncements of HOW that change will be detected.

The second issue is more perplexing. Why the fairly distinct flavour from the can? The fact that Bob picked up the same thing tells me it wasn’t just my tastebuds being off that day. Proponents of cans argue it prevents light skunking and other aging process, but that wasn’t a factor here as all the beer was quite fresh. The beer tasted the same going in, so something happened along the way. My musings lead me to land on two, very provisional, hypotheses.

First, I wonder if the shape and opening of the can facilitates a smoother pour into the sample glasses. Yes, it is still quite a narrow opening, but cans lack that long neck which might have some effect. I know that drinking straight from the can trashes beer in the same way drinking from the bottle does – but Dave did three smooth pours, so that shouldn’t be an issue.

Second, I wonder if it might be related to travel-shock. All three beer got jostled in a suitcase flying for a few hours. That will have affected the beer to some degree. Maybe the can is more resistant to travel shock, again due to its shape? Got no real science behind me here, just thinking aloud.

I am welcome to hearing other theories about why we found this.

Clearly I need to do this again. Next time, I think we need to let the beer sit for a few days after travel, and possibly use freshly poured kegged product. Either that or we need to do it in Whitehorse, at the brewery, where all the confounding variables disappear. Now I just need to figure out an excuse to fly to Whitehorse…


9 comments to Can, Bottle, Keg: The Humbling of Mr. Foster

  • Dave

    Do you think your (or anyones) mental preconceptions of how each of the three beers should taste vs. how they actully taste affected this experiment?

    There are several videos and reports online of wine sommerliers incorrectly choosing wine based on their preconceived notions and how a wine should taste. Check the Josh Freed documentary for CBC called “Trouble with Experts” – Professional wine sommelier’s were incorrectly identifying taste of white wines that were colored with red dye because that is how a red should taste.

    • beerguy

      Well, my pre-conceptions clearly led me to the wrong conclusions on which was which, but I don’t think it “amplified” the taste differences – they were there. One of the hard part in tasting is figuring out what it means – I am certain those sommeliers TASTED a difference between the wines, but just judged wrong about which was the expensive one. That is the nice thing about blind tasting – it challenges your pre-conceptions. Thanks for commenting.

  • dave t

    So awesome that you did this Jason! I’d love to hear the results of more of these tastings!

    Also great of Yukon Brewing to facilitate this! Big kudos to them!

  • Dave

    Very interesting indeed. I’d like to see you get to Whitehorse for a fresh tasting. Would your preference be fresh pour from the keg?

    • beerguy

      Yes, that is my preference, as I wonder what the effects of travelling in a stainless steel growler did to the beer. It held its carbonation and all (the growler is sealed with a swing-top), but still, I wonder.

      Any volunteers on financing a trip to Whitehorse for Jason??? 🙂

  • David Rudge

    Here’s my guess:

    The downside of cans is that they’re generally not counter pressure filled. They are open to the environment during the filling process and as such carry a higher dissolved oxygen content once sealed. This oxygen wreaks havoc with the beer in the container, and due to the low volume, the effects can be tasted quite quickly thereafter – especially if the beer is allowed to warm up before cooling and sampling again.

    The bottles are probably filled with a double CO2 pre-evacuation during the fill cycle and properly FOB’d on capping. The kegs are surely counter pressure filled as well, and partly due to the volume vs. O2 pickup, you’d be hard pressed to taste a difference from what’s in the bright tanks at the brewery.

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