Of course, we would all prefer to have our favorite craft beer straight from the tap, but sometimes you need to take some beer home for later enjoyment, and sometimes you want to buy a beer from across the state or even across the country without buying an entire keg.
This begs the eternal question that has plagued beer drinkers for decades: Bottles or cans?
Back in 2007, Maui Brewing Company did something that was considered pretty unfashionable among craft beer fans at the time; they started packaging their beer and they chose cans over bottles.
Even at that time, the popular perception, even among brewers, was that cans were only for cheap beer. But Garrett Marrero and Melanie Oxley, founders of Maui Brewing Company, were convinced that they had made the right decision, and that they would just have to put extra effort into educating customers about the benefits of canned beer; benefits that extended to costs, beer quality, and environmental impact.
They went so far as to print their reasons for canning their beer on the cans themselves. Here’s an example from a can of Mana Wheat Ale:
This decision by Maui Brewing Co started a craft canning revolution. Now, eleven years later, it’s not uncommon to see craft beer packaged in cans, and there’s no mystery as to why. For small breweries, canning is just cheaper, and that allows breweries to continue providing beer to beer drinkers without passing on the cost of bottling.
But Maui Brewing Co insists that there are several other benefits to this practice. So we thought we’d try to get to the bottom of this debate once and for all.
Maui Brewing Co says that canning, despite popular wisdom at the time, actually maintains beer quality, keeping it fresher for longer. This is counter to assumptions that the inside of the can imparts metallic flavors to beer.
Well, the Alcohol Professor ran a couple of taste tests, one in which participants could see the beer being poured from either a bottle or a can, and one in which they didn’t know which was which. Each tasting used the same beer.
What they found wasn’t shocking; when people could see the beer being poured, they rated beers from bottles as tasting better. But when they couldn’t see the beers being poured, they expressed a slight preference for beer from cans. This difference wasn’t significant, but it at least indicates that packaging beer in cans doesn’t negatively impact the quality of the beer.
There’s more to this, though. One of the big benefits of cans to beer quality is that it prevents light from hitting the beer, and light damage causes a notable flaw in beer quality popularly known as “skunking.”
Skunking is a beer flaw that has been discussed for a very long time, since 1875 in brewer’s literature, and probably longer than that in less formal settings. But it wasn’t until 2001 that we knew for sure how this defect occurs. It turns out that the compound in hops that produces that deliciously bitter flavor in beer breaks down easily under exposure to ultraviolet light, resulting in a compound known as 3-MBT, which is chemically very similar to one of the main three ingredients in a skunk’s defensive spray.
Some bottle devotees have taken to using a UV coating in order to prevent this, but unfortunately this reaction can take place even under visible light, as long as riboflavin is present. And riboflavin is a B vitamin that is present in, you guessed it, cereal grains.
That’s all the science stuff, but you’d know this experientially if you’ve ever had a Corona from a glass-fronted cooler.
Green glass bottles offer a little protection from this phenomenon, and dark brown bottles offer a little more, but cans offer the most.
In addition, the seal between the bottle cap and the bottle can leak a little, whereas the cans are airtight, keeping beer fresher longer.
But what about the environment? Both aluminum cans and glass bottles are recyclable. In fact, most glass bottles are around 20% recycled content. But the fact that bottles are heavier than cans means that their carbon footprint for transportation alone is around 20% higher than that for cans.
Cans aren’t a great environmental option either, though. Despite the higher recycled content (usually around 70%) and the carbon savings due to lower weight, the production of aluminum relies on the mining of bauxite, and these mining operations are high impact as far as the environment is concerned.
And if you think discussions about environmentalism aren’t related to beer, think again. Clean water and healthy soil are both vital to quality beer production.
Cans weigh less; up to 67% less. This means that your favorite brewery can ship more of them at a lower cost to your local taphouse or bottle shop.
So what, you might ask? Well, often this means that the savings are reflected in prices, but also breweries that save this money, and believe me it adds up over a large volume of beer production, have more cash on hand, and this gives them the flexibility to ship to new markets, brew new and innovative beers, and even open breweries and taprooms in new locations.
That means more delicious beer in more places for all of us.
The Bottom Line:
So it looks like cans hold a marginal edge over bottles in quality (depending on the handling of the beer post packaging, of course), and environmental concerns may come out in favor of cans, especially those that use less new aluminum.
But for people who want the craft beer industry to continue thriving, as we at Barhopper do, it looks like cans may be better for the industry; in terms of both financial health of individual firms and in terms of promoting innovation.
Either is a great way to transport your beer, though if you’re taking it home cross country from an out of state brewery tour, you might want to keep your bottles in the trunk.