All around the world, beer has been served from glass bottles for centuries. Cans only became popular fairly recently in the grand scheme of things, and for a long time, they were the packaging of choice only for large scale macro breweries. However, times are changing, and modern craft breweries are changing with them, and so the great cans vs bottles debate rumbles on.
More and more craft beer is becoming available exclusively by the can, and old stereotypes are being flung out. Indeed, craft breweries from the US to the UK, Australia to Germany, and France to Croatia are all now singing the praises of the aluminium cans they use to package their beer.
So, what brought about this change? And does this mean that cans really are better than bottles? Let’s take a look below.
A Question of Taste
A few years back, if you had asked any craft beer fan about cans vs bottles, they would probably have laughed at the notion of using aluminium cans. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and preconceptions began to change. And now? Cans are all the rage.
Many people still scorn cans, and insist that they impact the flavour of the beer, but several studies and blind tests have showed that the majority of participants were unable to distinguish between the two when put to the test. Some super sensitive tasters are reliably able to tell canned beer from bottled, but they are in the minority, and while they note a difference, it’s not often detrimental to the beer.
Most modern craft beer fans now welcome cans, and happily affirm that the beer within tastes fresher and more flavoursome. Hop forward beers in particular are frequently regarded as better by the can, and truer to the taste the brewer intended.
Keeping Things Fresh
One of the big issues that brewers have with bottles is the higher chance of oxidation compared to cans. Cans are designed to be completely airtight, and provided they’ve been properly filled, there’s an incredibly small chance of oxygen finding its way into the can. Bottles on the other hand require a small amount of head space, and oxygen can often find its way in, potentially ruining the beer in question.
Even if the head space is filled with co2, the caps on a bottle aren’t completely airtight, and will allow co2 to escape and oxygen to replace it eventually, though this often takes years. In some beer styles, this can actually be a good thing, and add new depth to the brew.
A Sense of Occasion
Enjoying beer often involves far more than flavour alone. Great beer is enjoyed in company, with the right atmosphere and a relaxed vibe. Different occasions call for different beer, and even different packaging. Necking pale ale from the can at a BBQ or at the beach on a hot day is the carefree way to enjoy great beer.
More special occasions however often call for bottled beer. The iconic crack and hiss as the cap is removed, or the pop of a cork for something extra special, adds a sense of occasion. When sharing a special beer with friends, a 75cl bottle is generally the way to go, and cans probably wouldn’t be the same.
In the same vein, the style of the beer within often plays an important role. It’s hard to know how well cans age, and so bottles are typically used for those stronger brews that are designed to be cellared for months or years at a time, such as barley wine, imperial stout or lambic style beers. For more typical brews, such as IPA, pale ale, stout and ambers, cans are generally considered the better choice.
Bottles are typically able to withstand higher pressures than cans, which have been known to explode, especially in warmer temperatures. Therefore, highly carbonated styles such as weissbier or Belgian beers very rarely see the inside of a can. For the same reason, beers undergoing a secondary fermentation cannot be stored in cans, while bottle conditioning is far more effective.
The Environmental Impact
With the brewing industry looking to minimize its carbon footprint, the environmental impact of different packaging options is increasingly important. While both bottles and cans are recyclable, cans are typically more readily recycled globally, and contain more materials that can be recycled than glass bottles.
But the main advantage that cans have over bottles when considering the environment is size and weight. Cans weigh far less than bottles, and pack up much smaller, meaning you can transport a lot more and still have a smaller impact on the environment than if you were transporting bottles. Additionally, bottles tend to require more cardboard packaging to prevent breakages, while cans are sturdier.
The downside to cans is the environmental cost to produce aluminium, which is unfortunately quite high. On the whole though, cans tend to win out over bottles when it comes to being environmentally friendly. The lower transportation costs are also appealing to breweries and consumers alike.
There are passionate proponents on both sides of the cans vs bottles argument, and while it may never truly be laid to rest, it’s good to have an idea of the pros and cons of both. There’s a place for both cans and bottles right now, with both offering advantages over the other depending on things like style and practicality. So, be it by the bottle or the can, let’s raise a toast to great beer!