Good Beer Hunting

It’s Lit — The Unfortunate Trend of Exploding Cans in Craft Beer

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Think the process to go from grain to glass with an ingredient-laden Pastry Stout or lacto-fruit milkshake IPA is strenuous? For some breweries, adding a phone call to their lawyer may be a new, necessary step, too. At least, that's the advice from one attorney regarding a controversial new trend in beer.

“I’d say you definitely need to seek basic legal counsel just to verify what verbiage should be put on a can,” says Candace Moon, a partner and member of the Corporate Department at Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. “Even just to share how things are communicated, because a second set of eyes could be meaningful.”

Such is the awkward reality—and surprising conundrum—of who should be responsible for an exploding can of beer. For all the challenges in today’s beer industry, it’s a rather strange and new one, spurred by discussions not around the quality of a product, but its ability to harm the consumer.

“A claim like this, should someone say it causes some harm or injury, lends itself to claims against multiple entities,” says David Brittingham, co-chair of Dinsmore & Shohl’s tort practice group and specialist in civil litigation product liability. “Certainly the manufacturer of the beer is probably going to get involved in a lawsuit, but if that beer maker uses a third-party manufacturer to can its beer, they could be in the process from a standpoint of defective manufacturing.”

Since this spring, as warmer weather has led to an annual transition of beverages that best pair with high temperatures and sweeter tastes, beers made with copious amount of berries or tropical fruit have caught the attention of drinkers and industry pros. The issue is the threat of refermentation that takes place after packaging due to sugars from fruit and/or sediment added late in the brewing process.

A most recent example came from That’s What Happens When You Let Dad Outta the House, a collaboration between Evil Twin and Hoof Hearted Brewing that produced a sour IPA made with pineapple, guanabana, vanilla, and milk sugar. Not long after its release, a Reddit thread warning drinkers about cans exploding quickly accumulated 266 comments. There was a mixture of consumers decrying the threat of lost beer and potential injury, as well as others placing the burden of safety on buyers who aren’t educated. It was either the breweries’ fault for making the beer in the first place, or a customer’s fault for not knowing how to safely handle such a beer that states on its label “CONTAINS FRUIT. KEEP COLD AT ALL TIMES.”

There were also multiple versions of posters sharing accounts of the problem. One said a few cases "exploded immediately upon being set down." Another said a store lost 19 cans, adding that "I felt like a bomb tech moving the rest of them to the sink."

Even if it's kept to a corner of Beer Internet among enthusiasts, it represents a more extreme theme to a broader, mainstream conversation about the importance of freshness. These beers are presenting a new and serious situation for craft beer with a stronger connection to its agricultural roots. "Fresh" doesn't just mean canned and consumed within a date code, but rather, literal days. And the threat of going bad and causing some kind of harm is more than a stomachache.

But what does this trend say about the way some drinkers—not to mention the people making it—think about beer? Brewers dealing with this particularly explosive issue are seemingly caught between an emerging idea that beer should be treated carefully like milk (an obviously perishable item) versus a common and historically-widely-accepted consensus that it’s a manufactured product often shipped warm to a shelf across the country. These exploding beers suddenly hold a place similar to raw cheese—an extremely niche product that skirts the rules of usual food preservation decency which is largely enjoyed by a similarly niche group of consumers who are ready to put up with its fussiness.

And what about the beer drinkers who, for whatever reason, end up with these cans in their home and have no idea about their explosive potential?

In the past, separate discussions have revolved around the same issue with Richmond, Virginia’s The Veil Brewing and The Answer Brewpub, the latter of which put a smoothie-themed beer with passionfruit, pink guava, mango, and dragonfruit in a package labeled to look like sticks of dynamite. Indiana’s 450 North Brewing has also been referenced for explosions, one blog post discussing the potential for such an outcome.

“If you leave it on your porch, chances are you’re going to have some refermentation going on,” 450’s McKinley Minniefield recently told the ABV Chicago podcast. Referenced as handling PR or promotions for the brewery on the podcast (he’s also been called a sales rep), Minniefield admitted that the style of beer is “not traditional” due to its need to stay cold, drank as fresh as possible and only sold via own-premise.

450’s assistant brewer, Brian Pine, took it one step further, noting that the addition of fruit into cans can be “pretty scary,” which is why the business adds potassium metabisulfite and sorbate, products typically used in wine to stall fermentation while also preserving flavor and color. Pine said on the podcast that it all puts responsibility on customers to take care of it by keeping cans cold and safe, but “if you want something super fruity, that’s the risk you’ve got to take, it seems like.”

The seriousness is not lost on Eric Ruta, founder and president of New Jersey’s Magnify Brewing, which hasn’t just dabbled in fruit-heavy beers that could go boom, but poked fun at it, too. This week, the brewery is releasing its second version of Trade Proof, a 4.5% ABV Gose pictured above that’s made with mango, cherries, and guava. The first iteration of the beer, released in July, included strawberry, guava, and apricot purée and a warning on social media announcing its release.

“Please note that this beer contains significantly more fruit than we’ve ever put into a beer before. Unlike our fruited beers in the past, we added the fruit just prior to canning so this beer contains fermentable sugars. This allows us to get the most character out of the fruit, but requires responsibility once these cans get in your hands! It is imperative that these cans remain cold at all times! For real! $17 per 4 pack, 1 case limit.”

Ruta tells GBH that, along with the heads-up on digital platforms, cans of the beer include labeling stating it should remain cold at all times and brewery staff also reminded buyers verbally on release day. Smaller quantities were removed from cold storage during the sale to minimize warming to large collections of cans. The label was also purposefully made to hammer the issue home: four-packs show a time bomb counting down from three with a fourth can showing the start of an explosion.

“It’s important that people understand education is a huge part to make sure everyone knows what they’re buying,” Ruta says. “Obviously, you’re not going to be used to cans exploding, so you have to realize this is very serious. We really, really need to make sure everybody realizes that.”

To best understand any threat before Trade Proof’s first release, Ruta and his team even did their own test. After packaging the beer, they wrapped a can in a plastic bag and put it in a box, leaving it in an open warehouse with an ambient temperature of 85-90 degrees. After starting at about 30 degrees off the canning line, the can took three or four days before it popped, Ruta says. Over a pound of fruit per gallon went into release No. 1.

“It’s a shitload,” Ruta says. “The fruit literally lines the glass as you drink it. People absolutely loved it.”

Contrary to what Moon and Brittingham suggested to GBH for this story, Ruta did not seek legal counsel in making and releasing the beer, given the lengths he says the brewery went to make it clear to buyers there was a risk. “I’ve been waiting for an email saying, ‘My can exploded, I want a refund,’” he says, but no such thing has popped up in his inbox yet.

Considering the lengths he went through to tell and remind consumers of the threat of exploding cans, Ruta believes that drinkers are responsible for safety at some point.

“If you go to the grocery store to buy milk and leave it in your car for two days, then drink it, you’re going to get sick,” Ruta says, pointing at a need for connecting common sense with what a producer heeds its customers.

And to his credit, Magnify and others releasing such beers aren’t alone in their interest or curiosity with fermentation in aluminum. To a different, lab-driven degree, some breweries are experimenting with can conditioning for carbonation, a process thematically similar, but without the same kind of threat or intent.

In a story published in SevenFifty Daily, Josh Bernstein—who is a GBH contributor as well—talked to brewers who see can conditioning as a valued practice. Businesses in New Jersey (Referend Bier Blendery), Colorado (TRVE), Minnesota (Fair State Brewing Cooperative), and more have all dabbled. In New York, Transmitter Brewing purposefully experimented with volumes of carbon dioxide to test structural integrity.

“We got to a point where we broke cans,” Transmitter co-founder Anthony Accardi told Bernstein. “I wanted to see what cans looked like at various volumes so we know if something has gone south.”

That work, however, took place behind the scenes, not on a counter or in the cellar of a customer’s home. For a time in July, Boulevard Brewing’s Jeremy Danner raised the issue on Twitter.

“I can’t believe it’s even a conversation,” he tweeted on July 18. “If a brewery knowingly packages beer that has the potential to explode, they clearly don’t give a damn about the consumer and I’m angry they exist.”

The next day, as some replied that the onus should be on consumers, he tweeted further: “If breweries aren’t equipped or willing to package beer that won’t explode, THEY SHOULDN’T PACKAGE IT. How on earth is this even a conversation?!”

The exchanges emphasize the weird nature of an unexpected controversy. When shoppers buy certain products—poisonous materials, industrial-strength cleaners, a chainsaw—there’s an understood aspect of safety involved, and it’s emphasized not just by warnings on boxes and labels, but in general via social and cultural competency. Consumers have been shown, told, and taught for years that these items can be dangerous when not handled properly. This has not been the case for beer.

“I wouldn’t be doing it,” chuckles Moon, the lawyer at Dinsmore & Shohl. The sheer fact that there’s acknowledgement of risk should be enough to make it an issue of “common sense,” she adds.

“People like to have fun in his industry, but at the same time, you have to be a responsible business person,” she concludes. “It might make for fun branding, but it could potentially come back to bite you.”

—Bryan Roth