Bottles and cans, just clap your hands!
Does beer taste better from a can or a bottle?
Canned beer hasn’t been taken seriously by beer snobs or the general public for quite some time. Cans have a reputation for ruining the beer’s flavor by giving it a distinctly metallic taste. Cans also have been associated with fizzy, cheap-tasting beer. Bottled beer is perceived to be classier, and bottles offer a variety of fine-crafted beer.
Tom Young, brewmaster at Great Basin Brewing Company, remembers a World War II story his father told him about canned beer he received in the South Pacific.
“One day they pull into this harbor, and they were talking for months about ‘Hey, we’re going to get this beer ration,’” he said. “Sure enough, these pallets of beer cases come up, and it was Iron City. He said, ‘Man, it was the foulest tasting beer I ever had. It was like chewing on a metallic stick.’”
Can technology has come a long way since World War II. Now aluminum cans have plastic liners to protect the beer from being tainted by its container. Some think modern cans hardly affect beer taste and are comparable to bottled beer, if not better.
Despite that, Young said nine out of 10 people would say canned beer still tastes a bit off.
Robert Bates, owner of The Reno Homebrewer store, said people may complain there is a metallic flavor, but that comes from carbonic acid produced by over-carbonated beer, not from the can. Despite a bit of over-carbonation, he said, cans are a far better container for beer than bottles. Cans offer beer better protection from oxygen and light—the two greatest threats to beer quality.
“I think it’s the future,” Bates said.
Bates remembers an experiment the local brewing club, Washoe Zephyr Zymurgists, conducted about 10 years ago.
“We took bottled beer and canned beer, and we kept them in different conditions,” he said. “We kept them cold, we kept them in the sun, we kept them warm; and in a blind tasting, after a month, the stuff in the cans tasted the best. It is an overall superior seal for the beer.”
Big beer producers, such as Anheuser-Busch, have been putting their beer in cans for decades. Microbrewers have begun to reap the benefits of canning beer. Local beer-maker Buckbean Brewing Company ships its beer exclusively in cans.
Dan Kahn, head brewer at Buckbean, said the choice to can the beer happened almost by accident. Before they opened in April 2008, Kahn and his partner, Doug Booth, went to the Great American Beer Festival. Back then, they assumed they would be bottling their beer like most microbreweries. The two were brainstorming on special packages for their holiday products, spitballing ideas such as champagne-like bottles. The idea of canning the beer was a joke, until they heard microbrew company Oscar Blues make the case for canned beer.
“We went and saw the stuff that Oscar Blues was doing, and all of a sudden we were like, ‘Maybe we should just do cans entirely,’” said Kahn.
The more Kahn researched the idea, the more he liked it. He said canned beer is superior in every way, not only for the protection of the beer, but production-wise, as well.
Canning beer has been impractical for microbrewers until recently. Canning machines were only for large-scale production. Small brewers would buy bottling machines from soda companies, which were better suited to a more limited production.
Kahn admits that pre-printed cans take up space, but their small-scale canning machine is much smaller than a comparable bottling system. Bottles also mean cardboard six-pack holders that require machines or manpower to assemble. Cans need a lot less packaging.
Two people are able to can about 400 cases a day at Buckbean. If they bottled the beer, they would need at least two more people, and the cost would be twice as much.
Kahn also said since cans are lighter they are easier to transport. Bottles can go over a truck’s weight limit before filling the whole space, but cans can be transferred much more efficiently. This is where cans outshine bottles the most—environmentally.
“By far, cans blow everything away,” said John Sagebiel, manager of environmental affairs at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Cans, unlike bottles, are easily sorted from other trash by inducing an electromagnetic field. Also, recycling a can only takes 5 percent of the energy it takes to manufacture a new can, compared to 75 percent for glass.
Canned beer can also go more places. Glass bottles are prohibited in certain places like beaches. They are heavy, large and prone to shattering, which makes them impractical for hikers or backpackers. Cans are collapsible after their contents are sucked out, making them perfect for carrying. They also take much less energy to cool.
For all these reasons, New Belgium Brewing Company started canning its popular Fat Tire Amber Ale. Grady Hull, New Belgium brewer, said the company wanted to can Fat Tire for a long time. The brewery did have reservations, though.
“A lot of people in the company kind of hesitated a bit because of the fear of it cheapening the image,” he said.
Here is canned beer’s biggest hurdle: It is usually associated with cheap beer, or as Silver Peak head brewer Brandon Wright puts it, “more accessible beer.”
He said more high-quality beers are being put into cans. This is helping canned beer’s image, but it still has a long way to go.
“What it could more be equated to is serving filet mignon at a hot dog stand,” Wright said. “You know, it just doesn’t work. People won’t pay $20 for filet mignon, no matter how good it is, from a hotdog stand.”
Presentation is still important, Wright said, and canned beer can still feel cheap.
Canned beer may never defeat its bottled brother in the beer battle for dominance. Homebrewers only need a bottle-capper to seal their product, unlike the special machinery used for canning. And though brewers are quick to sing the praises of canned beer, most, like Young from Great Basin, said they still prefer to drink beer out of bottle.
Wright said he wouldn’t have a problem drinking most beers from cans. But other beers, such as the en-vogue Belgium-style beers, he would be more hesitant to buy in cans. Some beers have a bit of yeast floating at the bottom, which helps carbonate and eat up extra oxygen in the bottle. Though the yeast has no taste, Wright still finds it unappealing to drink. It is easier to avoid this yeast in a bottle.
So what is the best, greenest, tastiest way to get a carefully crafted, premium beer?
By drinking at your local brewpub. Since it is transferred between containers the least number of times, the beer is best preserved and is kept at a more consistent temperature. The beer doesn’t travel far, and restaurant breweries reuse their containers by washing their beer glasses, lessening environmental impact. You could also buy a refillable growler from them and take it home to reuse.
And thus the debate rages on. Though cans have gotten a bum rap, craft breweries are bolstering their reputation by putting quality beer in the aluminum containers. New Belgium is planning to put more of its brands into cans, and advancing beer technology is broadening breweries’ options. But for some the reputation of canned beer shall forever be sullied.
It’s a debate that will be solved by a time-tested American tradition. Not by marches, congressional debates or voting. What it all comes down to is marketing dollars.
“As much as I would love to believe, as a brewer, if you make a great beer then people will drink it, marketing is half, if not more, of the equation in selling beer,” said Wright. “That’s why Anheuser-Busch is top dog. They’re not the best beer out there, but they’re the ‘king of beers’ because they have exceptional marketing and throw a lot of money at it.
“In the brewing world there is a tough battle to be fought because the best brew in the country you probably never heard of, and I can’t say who he is for sure, but he doesn’t have the money AB does, and that is the way the chips are stacked.”