07/12/14

The Trend Making American Beer Great Again (and why it went so wrong)

I recently came across the headline “Number of U.S. Brewers Exceeds 3,000“, a level suspected last seen in the 1870′s. This statistic is another piece of anecdotal evidence that beer’s heyday–in the U.S.–occurred well before prohibition, followed by its dark ages in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s.  With the American beer industry now entering its age of enlightenment, I wanted to find a simple way to tell the whole story that wasn’t a one-off statistic.  Enter the Beer Institute.

The Beer Institute publishes an annual brewers almanac chock full of raw data dating all the way back to the late 1800′s.  Using this resource I was able to produce a chart that I think clearly shows the trends in the U.S. beer industry since 1887.   In 1887 the U.S. had 2,269 brewers producing on average 10,190 barrels of beer per year.  I suspect there were a large number of small local brewers producing  a lot of great beer. Even before Prohibition the number of brewers in the U.S. began to slide. I imagine there were many reasons for this including improved shipment methods, allowing some of these smaller brewers to extend their reach, acquiring or putting less successful brewers out of business.  What this means is while Prohibition was a catalyst to to moving beer toward its Dark Ages it was not the cause.  This trend rapidly worsened and by 1979 we had just 44 brewers in the U.S. producing on average over 4 million barrels of beer per year.  Beer production shifted from quality to quantity, good for the brewers but terrible for the consumers. Lucky for us today, beer was about to enter its Renaissance.

Beer Advocate has a fantastic timeline illustrating how this Renaissance was born, but some key events include the legalization of home brewing in 1978, the first ever Great American Beer Festival in 1981 and the birth of the brewpub in 1982.  Today, while craft beer still makes up a relatively small amount of market share there has been an obvious shift back to quality.  As of 2012–the most recent almanac data–there are 2,751 breweries operating in the U.S., producing on average 71,152 barrels of beer; 98% below the 1979 level.  While we will never know what we missed in the late 1800′s, if you are a fan of beer, now isn’t a bad time to be alive.

Here is the chart:

06/2/12

This Week Needs Only One Headline & It Involves Gatecrashing Cows…

A recent AP article picked up by a few local media outlets turns our attention to one of the new most serious dangers of hosting an outdoor summer barbecue with free flowing cold beer: roving herds of cattle.  That’s right — roving cattle herds are now a clear and present danger to all those partying outdoors.  Let me explain.

The South China Morning Post headline goes like this: “Gatecrashing Cows Sour the Mood at Backyard Party”.  But once you read the succinct 127-word story, you realize this title is quite tame compared to the actual events.  Apparently, a herd of cattle in Massachusetts crashed a backyard BBQ. Then, like an American version of Pamplona’s running of the bulls, they chased the attendees away from the party and began drinking their beer:  “the cows had knocked the beer cans over on a table and were lapping up what spilled… they even started rooting around the recycled cans for some extra drops.”  Here is a version of the article published by The Herald.

What worries me the most is that out of all the states in the U.S., Massachusetts has the fifth fewest number of cows. If cows can organize there in such small numbers, what can they do in states where their numbers are higher? Massachusetts is home to a meager 41,000 cows; there are 30 states in the U.S. with over a million.  Looking at the data and assuming this trend persists, outdoor BBQs may be most at risk in California, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas — all states with over 5 million cattle each.  Alaskans and Rhode Islanders may be the safest from cow-crashers as neither of those states has over 15,000 cows.  If you happen to live in a high risk state, then BBQ with caution and keep those beers locked up. You can see the number of cattle by state here to see how at risk you may be…

 

05/27/12

This Week’s Global Beer Headlines (with Commentary)

*I spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out if Guinness really built a submersible pub to celebrate its 250 year anniversary, or if this is some sort of strange internet marketing prank, so far it seems legit. In any case you can judge for yourself here is one of the articles from Arch Daily. It is being billed as a “Deep-Sea Bar”, photos are included, there may even be a video.  According to The Drink Nation, “The steel-shell sub is stationed in the Baltic at Stockholm, and has already made its maiden voyage.”  Go figure.

*Beer may help lay in-roads for trade between India and Pakistan. According to an article on the NY Daily News website, less than 2% of Pakistan’s trade was with India in 2009, but thanks to a Pakistani beer now becoming available India this figure may soon grow. Apparently Pakistani beer, which does exist, hasn’t been sold in India since the countries where partitioned in 1947.  The article goes on to discuss how this trade may also improve ties between the nations given their sometimes volatile relationship, but I think for the brewer it should do wonders for demand.  Take this point from the article, “In Pakistan, people ordering beer via room service in smart hotels have to sign a form declaring it is “for medicinal use only”. Officially, only Christian and Hindu Pakistanis (about 3% of the population) are legally allowed to drink.”  While I haven’t tried this Pakistani beer, Kingfisher hasn’t set the bar too high leaving the Indian market ripe for the taking.

 

05/19/12

This Week’s Global Beer Headlines (with Commentary)

*A beer crime may have been committed at this year’s Preakness–I don’t mean the reported thirty minute waits to top up the $20 refillable beer mugs–apparently the mugs were being filled with Budweiser: Baltimore Sun

*Speaking of crime and beer, Darrin Annussek, a protester who apparently walked to Chicago from Philadelphia to take part in a NATO summit protest, was arrested this week.  During the raid the home brewing equipment of the out-of-towner’s host was confiscated by police, seemingly being confused for a Molotov cocktail workshop.  According to Kris Hermes, of the National Lawyers Guild, “There is absolutely no evidence of molotov cocktails or any other criminal activity going on at this building.” (Home brewers beware.) CBS Chicago (NBC Chicago also had coverage with a great headline “Beer Not Bombs”)

*Twelve upping Darrin’s walk to Chicago, 12 beer fanatics in the U.K. have undertaken a 16,337 pubs 28-year pub crawl, and I can’t imagine they’re done.  The best quote for the article comes from one of the fanatic’s girlfriends, “When I started my relationship with Kelvin, it was clear from the start that beer was part of the package.”  Mirror

* In a story from Africa, a beer shortage received first billing in a set of calamities striking Harare, Zimbabwe beating out electrical blackouts and water stoppages. Well ahead of any quotes or mentions of the importance of electricity or water conservation was this, “What we are getting erratically are quarts and cans. Pints, which many drinkers prefer, are not available.”  The word disastrous was also applied, to the beer situation.   The Herald

* Finally an item from Taiwan has me ready to book a ticket across the Strait.  Apparently until around 2002 the Taiwanese government had a monopoly on alcohol production, which they had to give up in order to join the WTO; creating the genesis of the country’s micro-brewery movement. Today, while the the old state owned company combined with imports make-up 99% of the beer market, craft brewers like Quentin Yeh should soon change that statistic.  A quote from Quentin, “Our craft beer, unlike its filtered and pasteurized cousin that comes in cans, preserves the distinctive taste of yeast with a fresh finish,”     Taiwan Today

I hope you enjoyed the headlines.

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05/13/12

Maybe not Today, Maybe Not Tomorrow, But Soon Maybe We’ll see Dogfish Head in HK

HK BeerfestYesterday, while engrossed in beer conversation at the launch party for a new Hong Kong beer distribution company, this Trappist Punk sadly made two realizations: 1) We’ve allowed this site to become terribly dilapidated; & 2) I have an intense hankering for almost any Dogfish Head or similar top notch east coast brew.  This led me to ask the owner of what seems to be a very promising distribution company about the chances of acquiring said beer in a corner of the world mostly devoid of America’s finest brewed creations.  Sadly, he informed me that not only did this seem unlikely, due to capacity limitations Dogfish has actually stopped distributing in his home state, Wisconsin.  (This should be in another post, but if you are ever in Milwaukee, make sure you give the guys over at Lakefront Brewery a couple hours of your time.)

Well, I thought, at least I asked, and to the company’s credit their repertoire includes a robust selection of Rogue beers, which I quite enjoy.  For those reading this in Hong Kong, the company is called Hopleaf and they sell retail.

Today, sitting at my PC, I came across a headline that gave me a glimmer of hope that one day (albeit probably not until I move back to the U.S.), Dogfish may finally be able to service Hong Kong — and Wisconsin again, for that matter.  The headline read, “Dogfish gets OK for warehouse build.”  I know — not that startling. But the catch was deeper in the article:

“The brewery will produce 171,000 barrels of beer in 2012. While it hopes to expand to 500,000 barrels of production within the next 10 years, Benz said there are no business plans to do so at this time.”

That’s quite an increase and maybe enough to get a few bottles out to Hong Kong.  The bottom of the article also indicates that Dogfish recently received approval to expand their current facility, which maxes out at about 200,000 bottles of beer a year.   While I am not expecting to taste Dogfish Head at next year’s Beertopia festivities in Hong Kong, I do think that as Hong Kongers continue gaining a better appreciation of American Craft beer, in no small part thanks to the guys at Hopleaf, Hong Kong may become an attractive lucrative market for all those beers I miss so dearly. By 2015, Euromonitor data — quoted by the Canadian government, strangely enough — suggests that Hong Kong beer consumption will rise to 75 million liters from 73 million this year; I suspect with availability of the right American craft beers this could easily rise above 80. Here is a link to the original article.

08/25/09

The Beer Excise Tax – a Brief History and Perspective

beer taxEarlier this year H.R.836 was introduced to the House of Representatives, if approved this bill would it would reduce the federal excise tax on beer from US$18/barrel to its pre-1991 levels of US$9/barrel.  In order to better understand the history of beer excise taxes the Punks contacted our Capitol Hill liaison Jeffrey Last, and this is what he had to say on the matter:

Excise taxes on alcoholic beverages are amongst the oldest in the history of the United States.  The first federal tax was established in 1791 as a short lived budget measure to pay off our debts from the Revolutionary war.  This tax has been reinstated several times in our history, not surprisingly either after wars, i.e. the War of 1812, to pay off debts or in the run-up to arms, i.e. the Civil War, as a means to finance them.

It was when the tax was reinstated during the antebellum period, the years just prior to the Civil War, that it was extended from just spirits to all fermented beverages including those we know and love as beer and ale.  Additionally, this tax has prevailed to the present day (minus prohibition); where today it exists at a rate of $18 per 31 gallon barrel for large producers and at $7 per barrel for smaller producers, ones that produce less than 60,000 barrels a year.  This tax is universal, so foreign and domestic brewers are equally impacted by it.

While I am in no position to determine what impact this tax has on the domestic brewing industry, I can give you the numbers on the revenue it creates and leave the judging to you.  In fiscal year 2007 the federal beer excise tax generated $3.8 billion with $3.3 billion coming from domestic brewers, and $500 million from imports.  Keep in mind these are just revenues from the federal tax of $18 per barrel.  Each state has its own excise tax that ranges from the lowest in Wyoming of $0.62 to the highest in Alaska of $33.17(ouch).

While the federal tax isn’t earmarked for anything specific other than a revenue stream, the state taxes are usually levied as a means for paying for certain state programs and initiatives.  For example, Arkansas uses their excise tax to fund education and child care development funds.

There have been many justifications for having an excise tax, both federal and local, on beer.  Some argue that these so-called “sin taxes” are a great tool for curbing habits that are deemed less than healthy, while others see them simply as a tax on a luxury item.  However, there are those who feel the rate adversely punishes lower-income individuals and feel it should be lowered or repealed.  In fact, there have been efforts by Congress recently to halve the federal excise tax on beer.

Regardless of your personal views on the matter, keep this in mind. When you go out to the bar and order a pint of your favorite brew, between 40 and 44 percent of what you pay is the various excise taxes being passed on to the consumer.

Thanks Jeff!

08/14/09

Finally, a Beer Fit for Breakfast!

Reports are coming out of a very unique beer in the works from the Brooklyn Brewery. My hope is that it finally makes drinking beer before 10 AM a socially acceptable, respectable act. It seems that brewmaster Garret Oliver is looking for ways to get bacon into beer.

The reports are sketchy at best, but it appears the beer is starting out with two parallel threads that will be blended at the end. As Garret puts it  “Either this will be the most amazingly disgusting thing you’ve ever tasted in your life, or I shall rule the earth.” I must agree, but how’s he doing it?

  • A barleywine has been brewed using malt that was smoked in the same room as a batch of Benton’s bacon (Allan Benton is apparently a legend among bacon producers).
  • A brown ale is being infused with the essence of bacon fat by a process known as “fat washing.” This process has already been used to produce bacon flavored rum and bourbon apparently (who knew?). The fat is heated until completely liquid, then mixed into the beer. Then the whole thing is chilled until the fat congeals back to a solid state and rises to the top of the beer, where it’s skimmed off. In the process, the non-fat goodness of the bacon is left behind, dissolved in the beer, while the fat is removed from it. This keeps the beer from developing a greasy mouthfeel (also lipids in beer have a nasty effect on head retention as they interfere with the formation of the protein matrices that form bubbles). The brown ale will then be aged in Bourbon barrels.

In the end, these two forces will combine like antimatter to produce a beer that may very well change the world as we know it. I wait with bated breath, very excited and a little afraid…

08/4/09

Liquefied Sweat Sock: The Geuze

One of the topics we intend to cover on this blog, which is not well understood by alot of American craft beer drinkers, is the insane beauty that is Belgian brewing. The Belgians do things a little differently than everyone else. The best way I can think of to introduce this concept is to talk about The Geuze.

We Punks always refer to “The Geuze” in a monolithic sense, with a simultaneous reverence and terror. This is a very unusual beer. In reality it is simply the most extreme version of the Lambic style of Belgian beer. Other examples of Lambic beer are far less extreme, examples including the fruit lambics such as Framboise (blackberry) or Kriek (cherry). If you’ve ever met a girl that claimed not to like beer, get them a Lindeman’s fruit lambic. They won’t believe it’s beer, but it’s sure to please; Lindeman’s Kriek tastes like black cherry soda in my opinion. Those of you that think Sam Adams makes a Cranberry “Lambic” might want to leave the room now. The beer may be tasty but it’s certainly not a lambic.

What sets Lambics apart from other beers is that they are not fermented by carefully cultivated, house broken Saccharomyces yeast. No, these beers undergo a process known as Spontaneous Fermentation. This is precisely what it sounds like: the unfermented wort is pumped into a kuhlship (an empty one from Allagash is shown in the image to the left) and left at the mercy of whatever little beasties happen to be present in the rafters of the brewery (or farmhouse as is often the case) or even blowing in through the open windows. This invites all kinds of species, not just wild yeast but even bacteria such as Lactobacillus to leave their mark on the wort. This brings us to the title (and one of the most pronounced flavor characteristics of The Geuze for many drinkers) – Lactobacillus is a bacteria that produces lactic acid, which is commonly found in sweat and gives The Geuze a sour odor that many people describe as similar to foot odor. Traditional Lambics are primarily brewed in a small area around Brussels, seasonally from October to May, when the weather limits the presence of undesirable bacteria. This reigns in this character a bit, but pick up any Geuze at your local liquor store and it will likely be unmistakable.

Spontaneous fermentation also gives rise to one of the more unique aspects of brewing a true Belgian Lambic: the art of blending. Just as different malts of scotch are blended, and in times of yore aged beer was cut into batches of new beer to “bring it forward” with a hint of aged complexity and tanginess (a tradition that Guiness still carries on in a way with intentionally soured batches for their Foreign Extra Stout), so do highly trained Belgians round out the differences in flavor from year to year by blending batches. If one year’s vintage got too much Lacto, that sourness can be offset by blending it into a previous year’s vintage that just wasn’t quite sour enough.

In this way, you can start to see why Belgian breweries have been around for so long and have not really changed much in the hundreds of years they have been brewing the same beer. Indeed there are stories of breweries that had to be shut down when it became necessary to move the old farmhouse the beer was brewed in; because the environment had simply changed just enough that they could not produce the same beer. There are also jokes about breweries whose beer simply didn’t taste the same after the old farmhouse dog died, because he wasn’t there to sneeze in the vats anymore.

And what about those fruit lambics? The sourness here tends to be undercut by the introduction of fruit after an initial period, which sets off a whole new round of fermentation. But if homebrewers are any indication, the insanity doesn’t end here. I have heard reports of otherwise sane and reasonable home brewers smashing their fruit and simply throwing it into the batch without any particular sanitation protocol, under the theory that any microorganisms on the fruit itself will simply add complexity to the fermentation character of the beer. Supposedly the results are quite good, if not exactly reliable.

As for tasting notes, the Punks have tried The Geuze on three occasions. First (always the guinea pig) I tried the Lindeman’s Cuvee Rene at home, and was unimpressed. The flavor was simply far too sour to get behind, though oddly (and disturbingly) the foot odor nose on it started to almost grow on me by the end of the bottle – almost. Maybe the worst of it dissipates with time, or maybe you become desensitized.

Eager to share the unpleasantness, I talked Mike into trying a Cantillon Geuze, also at home. Mike was forever changed. He said, and this is an exact quote, “I may never be able to drink Belgian fruit beer again.” (Remember, the Belgian fruit beers are built on a Lambic base, so some of the same flavor characteristics were present, but in a far more pronounced way in The Geuze.) He has largely kept good on this, as I have never seen him order a Belgian fruit beer since, and this was one style he would often try, before he met The Gueze.

The third occasion, however, brings us to the heart of the matter. Once at the Sunset I heard someone order a Cuvee Rene, and struck up a conversation with the gentleman. He said that he really enjoyed The Geuze, they had a certain dry complex character that reminded him of wine. Lindeman’s website describes The Gueze as cidery, winey, and reminiscent of dry vermouth. Tasting the Cuvee Rene with that for a new point of reference, I could almost (not quite) see what some people like in the stuff. Frankly, it’s not my thing, but it almost made sense to me, for a fleeting moment. This is why when the Punks refer to The Gueze, it is with both fear and reverence. This is, perhaps, the Mount Everest of beer appreciation, and the complexity of producing it is surely the pinnacle of insane, beautiful brewing.

08/3/09

China’s Growing Appreciation Toward Beer

ChinaBeerI was perusing the internet the other night, as I usually do, and began to notice a trend.  It all started with this headline: “SABMiller Halts Beer Volume Drop on Chinese Demand”.  At first I didn’t think too much of it, so I moved on.  Several minutes later, on a completely unrelated site, I come across this headline “Net profit in China’s major beer producer Yanjing up 25% in first half”.  Now I was convinced something was up, and I wanted to know more.

To my surprise, it turns out that by volume China is the world’s biggest beer consumer.  But, on a per capita basis China’s beer habit appears far less impressive at just 22.1 liters per year, this compares to 81.6 liters per year in the US.  However, both pale in comparison to the Czech Republic, whose residents imbibe an astounding 156.9 liters per capita–that’s roughly 41 gallons of beer per person per year!

This chart shows 2004′s annual beer consumption by volume for the top 15 countries, along with their per capita beer consumption:

Beer Consumption

Source: Kirin

Once my mind synthesized the headlines I mentioned earlier, and these beer statistics, I realized the global beer industry could be at the dawn of a new age, especially in China.  China’s population is currently estimated at around 1.3bn, compared to just 0.3bn in the US.  China’s rapid economic expansion has created a burgeoning middle class, whose tastes have shifted as incomes have risen.  Not only does this expanding middle class palate now crave things like pork over just vegetables, but also beer.

With this in mind lets run a simple exercise; let’s say as China’s economy develops, its per capita beer intake catches up with its nearby neighbor South Korea at 38.5.  This means China’s total beer consumption would rise to   50,050 ML–more than 2x the total US consumption…  Taking it one step further, if China’s per capita consumption catches up to that of the US, then China’s total beer consumption could equal that of the rest of the world combined.  I won’t event get into what happens if they catchup with the Czech’s, but I hope you have a stockpile!

450px-TsingtaobeerbottleMy point is that the Chinese beer industry’s potential is far from being realized.  In fact a recent report by Citigroup pointed out that China’s beer sector has bucked the recent economic slowdown with volumes up near 10% y/y in May. Major players in the domestic Chinese beer market include Tsingtao, Zhujiang, and Yanjing.  Tsingtao should stand to benefit quite nicely from increased consumption, based on its strong domestic brand name–I’ve thrown back more than my fair share while living there.  Numerous local brewers are also spread out across the country mostly catering to smaller geographical regions; consolidation is inevitable as the industry continues to develops.  Potential for brand-name foreign brewers is also off the charts, whether through local acquisitions or other types of investments.  I can’t imagine anything will slow this trend down, so just in case, here’s how to order a beer in Mandarin:

“Wo yao yi bei píjiu”

In case you need two…

“Wo yao liang bei píjiu”

07/29/09

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!