Why did we end up making cans?
It’s not often you get to hear from people who make cans of ready-to-drink booze, because usually, the story behind them is, “we got some gin and some tonic and we mixed them up and put them in a can”. But these cans are special so we thought we’d ask him a few questions about them.
We made some cans. There’s two of them, and they’re glorious: CAN 01 is this whole oolong tea, toasted birch, and green gooseberry thing, and CAN 02 is a fun cherry, blackcurrant, young pine cone, and walnut wood taste sensation. Wild right? You’re going to have to taste these things for yourselves.
The man who led the charge on making these beverages is our head of research and development, Chris Stewart. He’s a smart guy from Ireland who has been doing all kinds of booze experiments at Empirical since 2017. It’s not often you get to hear from people who make cans of ready-to-drink booze, because usually, the story behind them is, “we got some gin and some tonic and we mixed them up and put them in a can”. But these cans are special so we thought we’d ask him a few questions about them.
Hi Chris! How did Empirical end up making cans?
Two years ago I made a rip-off of a Bacardi Breezer/WKD kind of thing for the staff Christmas party. I even bottled it in similar bottles and made fake labels and everything.
It was made from douglas fir and pineapple kombucha, then fat-washed with coconut fat and coconut water - it was a really upscale, earthy, Christmas-y pina colada kinda piss-take.
We called it Weed Is Just Expensive Incense cos it smelled like pot, and we mocked up a label for it and made like forty bottles for people to drink.
So you just decided to make cans after that?
Everybody loved those things, so Me and Sam (former head of Empirical sales) talked it through, got the sign off from the team, and got on with it. It took us three weeks.
...that doesn’t seem like a lot of time.
It wasn’t. The first can we made I wanted to base around pomelo. My fiance is from Argentina so I’ve spent a bit of time in Buenos Aires. Historically it’s a port city, and immigrants from all over the world would work there and drink a bitter - like a Vermouth - with pomelo soda after work every day.
That kind of floral acidity that comes from pomelo - it just works in a long drink. So we started using hops and pomelo juice and heating it up along with different spices and fortified alcohol and stuff, to begin with. We ended up with pomelo, seshwan, and lemon verbena. From deciding to make a can to then making it then trialing it was 21 days.
But that first can isn’t what we’ve got now…
Well, we learned from mistakes with the first can. We had some cans exploding, one almost hit a cat. We would send some to places and they’d arrive exploded. Now we pasteurize them, they don’t explode.
Also, having to peel all the pomelos by hand, we decided that we didn’t want to do that again - never ever again - so we went in a different direction. That’s when the gooseberries came in. I was playing with the idea of gooseberry and oolong tea together, then I went to Argentina for a bit, and while I was away Lars (Williams, Empirical co-founder) put birch and douglas fir in the mix - the two flavors that pull it together - and that can (CAN 01) was done.
You make it sound so easy.
Well, then we had to figure out how to produce it all at scale.
We had to get hold of a wine press from Italy to press the freeze-dried gooseberries that we’d hydrated with alcohol. We tracked that down via a trip to Sweden to visit a cider maker.
We also had to figure out how to make 2000 liters of tea. Originally we had a container built with a filter to sit in that we could filter through the tea in one batch. Now we have a strainer that’s inside a vessel that can hold 300 liters - a forklift lifts it up and we can brew 300 liters of tea at once. It’s a giant metal teabag, basically.
What about CAN 02?
That happened because I started drinking fruit beers that had been aged in wood. I got obsessed with the idea of stone fruits and wood combined. I realized sour cherries went really well with walnut wood, So I’d just get a tree and shave some shavings off the tree, put some into water and brew a tea and put some into alcohol and drain it off.
The resinous quality of the blackcurrant worked really well with the wood. I had hop vinegar involved for this one for a while - it stayed in till almost the end, it was so close to being the right ingredient but it didn’t quite work. We replaced it with a lemon verbena kombucha which worked quite well.
It so happened that during this time I had got some young pine cones from Germany and had been making kombucha with them. The day we were due to sign off the can after maybe 50 different trials and a shit ton of stuff, I checked my kombucha like five minutes before we signed it off, I asked Lars to taste it and he did and was like can you do another version of the can with this?
We tried to sign off the can again a few days later, but then Sasha happened to get hold of a Maqaw pepper. I put some in alcohol and Lars tasted it and was like, this works.
So CAN 02 was signed off twice because we kept finding things that were like a missing piece that we didn’t see. But now it’s the way it is and it’s super nice and I like it.
Is it your palate that decides what works and what doesn’t?
To begin with, it’s all me, then as it starts to get to where I think it tastes kinda good, Lars and myself will taste it and have a chat. Along the way with the cans Eric was tasting things with me all the time, like, “oh that ginger’s a bit too much there,” and stuff. You always have to have a second palate to tell you if it’s bullshit.
What’s so great about cans anyway?
You know the expression, “a big bag of cans”? There’s a simple pleasure in going to the store, picking up a big bag of cans and going to sit by a river, or a lake or field or just hang out at a friend’s house or whatever. A bag of cans is a simple takeaway beverage to share and enjoy with friends.
The can I love most is the can you drink when you’ve been out for a skate all day, then you and your mate end up getting a beer from a corner store and you’re sitting on a bench with your board at your feet and you’re sweating in the sun and it just tastes amazing. That’s what I want for the cans we’ve made - that beverage that you can just crack open.
But it’s always the same stuff - corner store lagers or whatever, nothing very interesting - why can’t cans be nice? We’ve brought all these crazy ingredients together to make a can with a stamp of super high quality on it - that’s something nobody else is really doing.
Words Bob Foster and Christ Stewart
Photo's by Bob Foster @fosterfoster20
Research: What is kōji?
Kōji is a fungus. In fact, a few fungi. The word is Japanese. The Japanese character for kōji means ‘rice flower’, which is exactly what it looks like when it’s growing—a landscape of white, fluffy, tiny flowers blooming from the surface of the grains.
The one-off experiment that became a permanent fixture
Can 01 is a lightly carbonated drink based on a spirit made from beet molasses and Belgian saison yeast. It has been flavored with ingredients such as milk oolong cold brew tea, toasted birch tea, gooseberry spirit, cold-infused gooseberry juice, douglas fir spirit, and pomelo zest spirit.