Posted by: Scott | November 9, 2009

Should We Can the Bottle?

BFFsIn the beer industry, a war is brewing. All right, several wars. But the war for shipping vessel supremacy is one of the most fierce—and the least understood. “Cheap beer comes in cans,” some of you might say. “Fancy-schmancy stuff comes in bottles. What’s the issue?” Well, some craft breweries have been opting for aluminum over glass, and that muddies this seemingly clear division. What are these brewers thinking? I’ll get to that in a sec. First, a brief history of cans and bottles.

Humans have been bottling beer since 1800 B.C., when Sumerians were slurping it from jars through straws. As centuries passed, numerous societies continued developing beer technology. (Except the Romans, who called beer a “barbarian” drink. History’s first wine snobs, perhaps?) In the 1700s, brewers switched to glass. Now, most imported beers and craft brews come in bottles, which adds the prestige of scarcity and costliness to the vessel’s impressive track record. Plus, glass bottles sure are perdy.

Cans became popular after the repeal of American prohibition in the ‘30s (tin beer cans were actually in the works during the early 1900s, but the 18th Amendment halted these plans) because they were (and still are) cheaper than bottles. When brewers developed an interior liner to protect the beer from “metal turbidity”—and to keep the cans from exploding!—the industry went tin. During the subsequent decades, but before the American craft brewing explosion of the 1980s, metal cans attracted breweries that were, for the most part, interested in the cheapest option possible. This attitude eventually trickled into the fermentation tanks when said breweries (often referred to as macrobreweries nowadays) began using cheap adjuncts like corn and rice instead of barley. As a result, cans acquired a reputation for housing low-brow beverages. Now, a Google image search for “beer can” turns up this photo of a young scholar enjoying a beer-can bubble bath.

But in recent years, many kooky craft brewers have begun clothing their higher quality (and higher priced) beer in aluminum. Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company (responsible for the Sam Adams brand), dislikes this fashion choice. He even wrote a manifesto called The Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights, which states: “Beer shall be offered in bottles, not cans, so that no brew is jeopardized with the taste of metal.” Really, Mr. Koch? You realize that the industry developed liners to fix that problem more than 70 years ago, right? Because according to my experiential evidence, the brief contact beer has with a can’s lip as it pours into a glass (which is definitely how you should drink it) is not enough to impart metallic flavors. Perhaps I’d appreciate Koch’s stance (and his motives) if he’d addressed a more relevant issue, like the whole liners-leeching-BPA argument that’s selling so many Kleen Kanteens right now. (That said, I hope his company keeps up the good work with the Sam Adams specialty beers and all that donating hops to small breweries during shortages stuff!)

Of course, the craft kooks disagreed with Koch. Dale Katechis of Oskar Blues brewery invited Koch to try one of his canned beers, which have been winning awards and acclaim for years. Maui Brewing Company—remember the CoCoNut Porter I reviewed last week?—also supports the “microcanning revolution,” stating that cans “eliminate light damage and reduce the risk of oxidation, keeping our beer fresher than in bottles!” Their story checks out: Ultraviolet light and oxidating chemicals can damage beer, and sealed aluminum provides more protection than capped or corked bottles. The Hawaiian brewery also claims that “cans are lighter, chill quicker, and can be enjoyed … in sensitive environments. Aluminum is the most recycled and most eco-friendly material.” There’s some debate about that last point, as glass is also recyclable, but the other arguments make sense.

So which is better? Ya got me. I’ll put money on the older horse; bottles aren’t going anywhere. Something about glass just screams class, and most craft beers and imports come in bottles. Yet aluminum offers superior protection against light and air, and lets microbreweries lessen their expenses. My advice? Buy both. Ignore the stigma that surrounds the can, but keep buying bottles, too. Refuse to judge a beer by its cover. Learn to love and respect the beverage within instead.

On Thursday: The next chapter in the Budget-Beer Bible.

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Responses

  1. if i’m going to be putting cans of beer in my fridge, i’m going to have to include a printout of this article on my door, to explain such things. i’ve got a reputation to protect!

    • Why do you think I wrote it? 😀

  2. “There’s some debate about that last point, as glass is also recyclable, but the other arguments make sense.”

    To that – glass melts at 1400 -1600 degrees F depending on composition. And the bottles would have to be soaked/scrubbed to remover labels, etc. Also might have to be sorted according to color, composition before melting down? (maybe not). Aluminum melts at around 1200 degrees, (using less energy) Inks and residual impurities would either burn off or float as dross. So aluminum would have an edge, recycling-wise, making cans more cost effective, and environmentally friendly. I still like bottles too, especially for liquids with higher acid content, like wine and soda, but for beer, cans seem to be the way to go.

    • Good points! To be honest, my original statement about the can vs. bottle recycling debate went into more detail (yep, I sacrificed clarity for brevity because this article had already rambled on for six paragraphs). According to some data out there on the almighty Internet, the issues of aluminum vs. glass are part science (melting points, energy use, etc.) and part psychology: many people are simply more likely to recycle glass than aluminum. If accurate, this could relate to the types of people who buy each, the amount of each they buy, and/or their presumed value of bottles as opposed to cans. Either way, more aluminum (supposedly) ends up in landfills. But that’s a far less scientifically grounded argument — especially since I can’t remember exactly where I read it — and hopefully articles like this one will render it irrelevant by removing the low-brow stamp on cans!

  3. btw, terrific article. Keep em coming!

    • Thanks 🙂


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