Micro Cans for Your MicroBrew?
There’s no questioning the fact that there are several pros and cons with bottles and cans. Whether it’s for your next batch of beer or deciding what goes in your cooler for your next trip to the beach; you will likely ask yourself: “Can I bring this with me?” Or, if you’re a brewery, you may find yourself wondering: “If we can it, will people buy it?” Compromising on taste in exchange for the convenience of portability is one of many factors in the battle for beer container supremacy.
In the craft brewery industry, cans have been long thought of as inferior to bottles because they were too expensive, impractical and just didn’t preserve the true taste of beer. However, there’s been a developing trend in the last 10 years within the craft brewing industry to introduce canned versions of a brewery’s most popular product lines. The idea of canning premium brews was met with mixed results from the beer enthusiasts who swore by the timeless tradition of the glass bottle. Some love the portability that canning has to offer, while those loyal to traditional glass bottling methods remain skeptical. The final verdict is still out, so in the meantime, cans vs. bottles will remain a matter of taste versus portability.
Imagine for a moment that canning was a more practical and feasible option for brewing. Immediately, we are transported to a dreamlike world where your favorite craft brew is now more portable for your trip to the beach or your Saturday afternoon float down the river. Some state parks and recreational sites prohibit glass containers, which typically forces many beer connoisseurs to settle for something a little less desirable. Heaven forbid you accidently drop your beer. Not to worry; your aluminum transporter of precious liquid resources may be a little dented, bruised and a bit foamy, but you wouldn’t have to call a hazmat team to contain the dangerous brown shards of glass –which would have been the case for you had you chosen the bottled option. To some, the battle between bottles and cans is no laughing matter. The container is just as vital as its contents. But how efficient are today’s cans? Have they evolved enough over the years to compete with the tradition and standardization of glass bottles?
Some breweries were so confident in the new canning process that they took a few of their more popular lines and made them available in cans. New Belgium Brewery, Abita Brewing Company in Louisiana and more recently, Mother Earth Brewing in North Carolina, have all introduced canned versions of popular product lines. Trent Mooring, President of Mother Earth Brewery, explains the reasoning behind their canning endeavor:
“Cans are lighter to transport, and there’s no fear of breakage, but it really gets down to taste- some beer enthusiasts simply prefer the taste of canned beer, believing cans preserve flavor and carbonation better than bottles.” Read more about Mother Earth’s Latest Canning Update.
I think we all know that beer just tastes better in glass. It’s cheaper for breweries to bottle and brown glass prevents that dreaded “skunked” beer taste that most craft brew enthusiasts have nightmares about. For the most part, glass is also more environmentally friendly if you are a home brewer. Home brewers can sterilize and reuse empty bottles, whereas cans are strictly single use containers that must be melted down before reusing.
Many believe the bottle to be a status symbol that combines the quality of fine brewing, craftsmanship and exceptional taste found in craft brews. Compare that to the image portrayed by cans, which many associate with college frat parties, where beer is shot-gunned or stacked in floor-to-ceiling pyramids as a symbol of accomplishment and a part of the true college experience. For some, the can is still synonymous with “cheap”, “light” and “macro brew”. This may also factor into the reasoning process for choosing bottles over cans. Any way you look at it, there seems to be an image contrast between cans and bottles that many just can’t (or won’t) get over. Craft brews belong in expensive bottles while the cheap stuff belongs in cans…Right?
One little brewery in Colorado didn’t seem to think so. Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colorado sparked the bottle vs. can debate back in 2002 when they became the first craft brewery to can its premium IPAs. Owner and brew master Dale Katechis began canning craft brews simply to experiment with the canning process: "We thought the idea of our bold, hoppy pale ale squeezed into a little can was hilarious. It made us laugh for weeks.”Katechis never thought the idea of canning microbrews would be taken seriously. Oskar Blues had started a wave of controversy within the craft brewing industry that rocked more than a few boats. A vast majority of the industry scoffed at the thought of canning craft brews in almost the same manner we scoffed at the transition of milk from glass bottles to cartons. Our on-the-go culture has shifted our wants and needsover to things that provide an aspect of convenience.
Cans preserve the beer’s chemistry and taste and protects from light damage better than bottles. However, the old beer cans were known to often absorb the aluminum giving the beer a metallic taste. That’s ok if your iron intake is low but not if you’re Jim Koch, President of Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams). Back in 2005, three years after Oskar Blues Brewery started the first “microcanning” line, Koch shocked the craft brewing industry by publishing the “Beer Drinkers Bill of Rights”, which claimed that ''Beer shall be offered in bottles, not cans, so that no brew is jeopardized with the taste of metal."
Koch’s modern-day Ten Commandments amused Oskar Blues Brewery owner, Dale Katechis, who responded to Koch’s declaration:"The Jim Koch we know and admire wouldn't say such a thing…We think it's some cloned alien being that's running Samuel Adams and spreading this misconception about cans."
The fear of metallic beer was nearly laid to rest with the introduction of special cans with water-based linings designed to protect the beer by insulating it from the can’s aluminum interior. In July of 2011, Louisiana-based Abita Brewing Company announced plans to offer three of its flagship brews using water-base lined cans. President David Blossman is confident that the new cans offer a new solution that will provide portability while preserving taste:
"For many years people associated craft beer with glass bottles only, but the perception and the technology of the aluminum beverage can has really changed.”
Craft breweries that choose these new canning methods will now be able to reach previously uncharted territory – literally: "Cans go where glass bottles sometimes cannot—think about Louisiana's 3,000 miles of coastline, over 400 annual festivals, 194 golf courses and 22 state parks," he adds. "It all adds up to plenty of good reasons to put Abita Beer in cans." And that’s just one state.
Although some breweries are choosing this new packing method, even Blossman knows there's still no competing with beer from a glass: "Of course, I always preach the right way to drink a beer is to pout it into a proper glass. It's the full sensory experience."
From a marketing and company image perspective, it makes sense why some craft breweries are still hesitant to expand a canning line. Even with an increasing amount of craft breweries opening canning lines each year, bottles aren’t going away any time soon.
Oh and if you’re still having trouble deciding between glass and cans; I recommend plastic bottles. It’s the only container that floats in water or bounces right back into your hand if you drop it.