Tough Decisions: Can v. Bottle

In 2005, Jim Koch over at the Boston Beer Company (the craft beer magnate that brews Samuel Adams) released a controversial advertising campaign known as the “Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights.” What was the hub-bub all about? He dared take a shot at the nascent movement of putting craft beer in cans.

Craft beer in cans may sound like a contradiction for some people who are used to finding cans only at the gas station or grocery store, but this movement has only grown more visible in the past four years. Just off the top of my head, I know I can walk into Punk Fave the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston and find beers from Oskar Blues and 21st Amendment that are quite respectable. Mike has also had Pork Slap Ale from Butternuts and found it to be under-appreciated, and quite good for a relatively cheap craft ale. I’ve also heard that New Belgium in Colorado is in on the act. Even small, brand new breweries are eschewing convention-on a recent trip to Seattle Mike investigated the Fremont Brewery-small upstarts that were quite shocked to find him wandering into the warehouse that housed their brewery-and found to his surprise that they too were going with cans.

So if even the little guys are now brave enough to can their beer, how did cans get such a bad name? Basically, it comes down to startup costs. Bottles come empty and blank (with the exception of a few painted bottles mostly produced by mass-producers like Budweiser and Modelo), labels are printed cheaply and applied at the brewery. The fact that the bottles are manufactured blank makes it much cheaper to buy them in small volumes. Aluminum cans on the other hand don’t generally get a label at the brewery, so they are purchased preprinted and in bulk. Lots of bulk. Even a small, brand new operation-like Fremont-had to buy 500,000 cans just to get started. That’s in addition to more complicated and expensive equipment (take for instance the fact that homebrewers always bottle, never can…in the early days of a brewery, when capital budgets are tight, bottling can be done with cheap manual equipment, but canning cannot).

This meant that back in the formative years of the brewing industry in this country (post-prohibition) the mega-brewers that were producing large amounts of fizzy yellow stuff for nationwide distribution were the only ones who could afford cans. Over the years they gradually outmaneuvered or absorbed most of the competition and consolidated the market so that, for all intents and purposes, this was all there was. Indeed even today, for all the hullabaloo over craft brewing, all the craft beer makers in the US only have a 6.3% market share combined according to the Brewer’s Association, with the nations largest brewer by volume, Anheuser Busch, enjoying nearly a 50% market share on its own. So over time, everyone has begun to associate canned beer with the main producers of it: the massive goliaths that dominate the market.

The question is, are you tasting the can or the beer? Honestly, this is a tough question to answer scientifically. I’ve seen a few people try this experiment and it always seems to end in inconclusive results. They tried it once on the podcast Beer School, for instance, and were foiled by the fact that the cans and bottles had vastly different born-on dates and therefore one was skunked and the other was not (time is not a friend to the lager). Even had they been more diligent and gotten identical born on dates, one would have to wonder about the conditions encountered by the beer between the brewery and the store. So we won’t try to recreate this experiment. We can, however, examine the arguments made by each side.

On flavor, can proponents will tell you that the metallic taste once reported by canned beer drinkers is long gone, eliminated by the invention of improved can liners. Before the 1930s, cans couldn’t even hold beer without exploding, until a solvent-based liner was invented to sure up the inside of the cans against the pressure of carbonation. But in the 1980s this technology was improved upon, and now, supposedly, the trouble is gone.

When grilled about this in response to the Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights, Jim Koch said that the problem was the areas of the can that are not lined: the tab and the lip that surrounds it. This is where you drink from, so it should have an impact on the flavor, right? Whoa there Jim, didn’t you read my post earlier this week? Item number one in the Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights should be a glass with an opening big enough to invite their nose to the party. Even at the ballpark they could give you a dixie cup for crying out loud.

So on sheer taste I’m going to go out on a limb here and say its a tie. The fact that several sources attempting an objective test on this were unable to achieve a conclusive result leads me to think it’s too close for the average consumer to judge, and I’d say that the impact on flavor from instantaneous contact with uncoated aluminum will have less impact that cutting your nose off to spite your taste, so to speak. Just pour your beer into a cup and don’t really care where it came from before that. What about other factors?

One important thing to consider is the thermal characteristics. Glass is a much better thermal insulator than aluminum. One could view this as a double edged sword, however. On the one hand cans will get colder faster than glass bottles (one reason some of the mega brewers are now producing aluminum bottles as a hybrid solution). On the other hand, holding your beer warms it, so an aluminum can’s higher conductivity would mean that it gets warm quicker.

Not so fast-don’t just stand there holding your beer, pour it in a glass, remember? Preferably a glass with the same insulating qualities as a glass bottle, rather than a plastic cup. So it seems that on thermal qualities, cans win out as long as we continue to respect the beer rather than the packaging. Another wildcard here is thermal wraps that can be applied to the inside of cans by the manufacturers. I’m not sure how this would alter the equation, ask a packaging engineer.

Cans certainly seem like a more efficient mechanism for transporting and storing beer as well. They are much more uniformly shaped, allowing them to stack much better than bottles. The long neck on bottles is primarily headspace, containing no beer. The headspace on a can is much smaller even though they both hold the same twelve ounces. Cans are lighter, too. Much lighter. According to the same Beer School episode, transporting 1000 oz of beer in aluminum cans involves only 3 lbs of packaging, whereas the same amount in glass would require 27 lbs!

This would seem to imply much lower shipping costs and make cans the environmentally friendly choice. But when I started really looking into that, the answer gets alot more complicated. Producing aluminum cans uses nearly twice as much energy as producing a similar amount of aluminum. Considering recycling makes it even more complicated. I found two separate sources examining the debate from this angle which led to completely opposite conclusions: in one case bottles had a higher return rate than cans. In the other aluminum cans have as much as twice the post-consumer recycled materials in it (40% v 20-30%). But the other source seemed to feel glass was more recyclable than aluminum.

Then there’s the real wildcard: reuse.  As a homebrewer I can tell you that I have mountains of empty glass bottles around my house. I’m not saving them to recycle, I’m saving them to refill and cap. You see, the same bottle that you return for your 5 or 10 cent deposit can cost upwards of fifty cents to a dollar to buy brand new. This is why many breweries in Europe collect used bottles, sanitize, and refill them. This is probably one reason Grolsch-style bottles with their swing tops are so popular in Germany; even the tops are reusable. The Beer School podcast even related a story about “beer men” in some areas – just like the milk man of old, he would go door to door and swap out empty bottles for full ones (not sure if this story was true or not, but it was poignant and very amusing).

So what’s the environmentally conscious craft beer consumer to do? For one thing, recycle. Every can, every bottle, every time. If you are a homebrewer, do one better and reuse your bottles. If you’re not…become one! Honestly though, these questions of carbon footprints and environmental impacts are always too nettlesome for me, and always turn out to be more complicated than they seem on the surface. After all, how environmentally friendly is the poisonous mercury in that CFL bulb? Is it better to keep driving your inefficient clunker, or chuck it in a landfill and buy a hybrid, fresh off the dirty assembly line? The bottom line is that the only sure thing is to use less and find other uses for what you do consume so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

One final point that the can-pushers like to bring up is that cans are better at keeping oxygen and light at bay. This is certainly true of light, just looking at a can next to a bottle is all you need to prove that. I was unable to find actual data on the oxygen permeativity of cans vs bottles, so that could just be marketing hype. So I suppose cans nudge out bottles by a slim margin here, unless you consider green bottles. Brown glass bottles are perfectly fine for conveying beer so long as they are treated reasonably (don’t leave the pallet sitting in the hot sun outside the warehouse, etc). With more brewers paying closer attention to quality control, I’m inclined to believe that beer is treated better now than in the past, and I’ll never pass up a dark glass bottle. But green or-horrors-clear glass bottles…as pretty or retro as they may appear…are not a respectable home for beer. This is a constant source of conflict for me since I love Pilsner Urquell, but the brewers insist on choosing tradition over clearly superior transport mechanisms.

So what’s the final tally?

  • Taste is likely a wash if you pour it in a glass.
  • Thermal characteristics are marginally in favor of cans, again if you pour it in a glass.
  • Efficient storage and transportation goes in favor cans, big time.
  • Environmental impact is too complicated for this Punk.
  • Beer protection again falls marginally in favor of cans.

It would appear that cans are the superior option. But again, lets not forget the reuse potential of bottles, which is largely ignored by this country, unlike our neighbors across the pond. But the bottom line is this: you are drinking beer, not the container it came in. Good beer will taste good even if you sip it from dirty boots (I imagine…never tried this one). Just don’t let your prejudice against certain canned beers stop you from enjoying good ones, and for heaven’s sake, invest in a glass so you can put this debate to rest already!