Last week, Bell’s Brewery announced that Hopslam, one of its most sought-after beers — one of the most sought-after craft beers bar none — would be released in cans next year, instead of bottles. Bell’s already offers flagship Two Hearted and summer seasonal Oberon in cans, but to entrust aluminum with the aromatic and delicious, oh-so-limited-release IPA that people hunt down, wait in line, and pay through the nose to get is a big step in the can revival. (They’re doing it because they have to, but still.)
There are now 2,063 canned craft beers from 533 breweries, according to CraftCans.com. The number of U.S. breweries just passed 4,000, so more than 1 in 4 American craft breweries can some of their beer. Even so, the can is still predominantly associated with the Buds, Millers, and PBRs of the world. Psychologically, it’s as hard to overcome as the screw-cap wine bottle dilemma.
Which is why even this year’s Brewer’s Association-Nielsen survey of 1,000 regular craft beer drinkers found that “47 percent of people would buy a bottle for freshness reasons, while only 4 percent would do so for a can.” What’s worse, there’s a perception that cans impart a metallic flavor that JUST. WON’T. DIE.
Beer cans have always been lined to ensure no interaction between the beer and the can. If it weren’t for this barrier, the beer would eat right through. It’s possible that your mouth on the outside of the can will affect the taste, but if you’re that perceptive, you should probably be drinking beer in a glass (you should be drinking beer in a glass anyway). In blind taste tests, such as one run by the Huffington Post in 2012, it’s not so easy for casual drinkers to identify canned beer. If that panel is not craft-oriented enough, check this smaller test of micros.
The truth is that, in addition to its other benefits, the can is better than a bottle at preserving freshness and presenting the brewer’s intended flavors. Cans guard against light and air, two of beer’s worst enemies. When certain wavelengths of light (including fluorescent light and daylight) strike beer, they cause skunking. Exposure to oxygen makes beer go stale. Amber bottles are good at protecting against these elements, but cans are better. They block all light and have a smaller head space. While air can leech in around a bottle cap, cans are airtight.
While there’s something to the argument that bottles look better, if it’s what’s inside that counts, then cans are, scientifically speaking, winning.
And what about those other benefits? Beer in cans cools down faster. Outdoorsy types have long lauded cans for portability. For cash-strapped micro breweries, the lower cost of canning equipment, lower shipping costs of aluminum, and the greater economy — 100 cases per pallet, compared to 60 cases of bottles — speak volumes. That also means better fuel economy and lower emissions in transport.
Cans aren’t completely green, however. Mining bauxite, part of the aluminum creation process, is damaging. Once created, cans are infinitely recyclable at a fraction of the energy cost, and most cans contain far more recycled material than bottles, but concerns about what happens to the lining are what keep Lagunitas Brewing Company from offering its beer in cans.
That brings us to the little issue of BPA. A synthetic compound found in the lining of cans, it has been found to seep into the beer in minuscule amounts. It’s been banned from water bottles and toys because of studies linking it to cancer and other serious health issues, though the FDA has also said that such trace amounts as found in beer aren’t harmful. And if you’re thinking of foregoing that can of Sierra Nevada because of BPA, you’d best put down your soda can, too.
Bottom line? By all metrics, there’s only one *best* way to enjoy craft beer: in the appropriate glassware straight from the brewery tap. Everything else is going to be an adulteration. But cans shouldn’t be seen as the lesser form of small packaged beer, and when Hopslam launches next year, you can bet I’ll be in line to buy that fast-chilling, light-blocking, space-saving, airtight, portable six pack.