Purists. That’s what craft beer drinkers claim to be; we want to savor the variety of flavors created from the basic Reinheitsgebot ingredients – malted barley, hops, and yeast. And perhaps add in a few other natural grains and high-quality adjuncts without the preservatives, artificial adjuncts and other chemicals which “Big Beer” tries to hide from its consumers. We love the irony of the simple science behind the brewing process. As a seasoned beer lover, I feel a need to address the slow movement of nixing the bottle-only craft beer norm in favor of throwing our liquid gold into cans. That’s right. If you haven’t realized, there is a can revolution brewing in the craft beer industry. The craft beer community has been trying so diligently to be different from Big Beer – to be better than Big Beer – only to stoop to their level by foregoing the centuries-old tradition of bottling in favor of packaging beer in chemical-laden high-tech cans. Why, beer drinkers? Why?
Well…to put it bluntly, craft beer consumers asked for this terrible change. But I am here to beg the masses to recant.
After talking with the clerk at one of my favorite microbrew stores, I understand there is a growing sentiment that “cans aren’t as bad as you’d think.” The advantages? Well, they’re more readily recycled, right? You can take them to places where bottles aren’t allowed, right? After all, cans are just like mini-kegs, right? I mean, it all tastes the same, right? There are a lot of reasons canned beer advocates offer to counter the beloved tradition of bottling, but let’s take a closer look at these proclamations.
I concede that cans are more recyclable; within 60 days after being recycled, an aluminum can is turned around and put back on the shelves, although most likely full of cheap swill. Aluminum cans contain 40% recycled aluminum, while bottles contain around 25% recycled glass. But that is where the argument usually stops and pundits simply declare cans the eco-friendly winner. There is a lot more to the story. Aluminum is made from bauxite, which is mined from areas such as Australia, Indonesia and Jamaica. The land stripping in these areas has wreaked havoc on the environment and surrounding communities. Glass is produced from the much more available silica, and costs half as much to manufacture considering the mine-to-bottle energy footprint. But the real dagger in the heart of environmentally-conscious can supporters is the fact that most bottles in the Unites States and Canada are produced to standard 12 oz. and 22 oz. sizes, which are reused an average of 16 times before being recycled. Who’s a tree hugger now?
Speaking of the environment, the beach, some camp sites, state and local parks, and hiking areas are all places that might not allow glass bottles or where cans are more convenient (though as a native Michigander, I have never been to a campsite where bottles were not allowed). Touché, however, they are also places typically accompanied by high amounts of activity and/or sun. Traditionally higher gravity craft beers wouldn’t be practical in these settings whether they were allowed or not. We’re purists – drink water during or after a long hike, not a beer. It would be warm when you get where you’re going anyway. Another argument of can supporters is that canned beer chills much more quickly. That’s because the heat transfer rate of metal is much greater than that of glass, but that also means the concept works both ways. A beer that chills faster also gets warm faster. Feel like drinking your Dragonsmeade Final Absolution out of a red plastic picnic cup in the middle of the summer? Didn’t think so…but then…
…if you’re drinking out of a can, you might as well be drinking out of plastic. All aluminum cans are lined with a plastic-like epoxy liner to keep the carbonic acid (a result of carbonation) from reacting with the aluminum. I know what you’re thinking, “Wait a second…I subscribed to the mini-keg idea, but drinking out of plastic? I don’t think so!” Wait…it gets worse. To this date, the epoxy used in the lining of all beer cans contains the controversial chemical Bisphenol A (BPA). According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Cincinnati, “The chemical, [which] is widely used in products such as…food can linings…has been shown to affect reproduction and brain development in animal studies.” BPA is classified as an endocrine disruptor, meaning it mimics a naturally produced hormone and affects the body’s chemical make-up. Most endocrine disruptors are also carcinogens, meaning they have been identified as cancer-causing agents. The study later states, “There is a very strong suspicion in the scientific community… that this chemical has harmful effects on humans.” Granted, the anti-BPA sentiment has been accused of being a bit overblown due to lack of scientific evidence, but then heroin was once used as a cough suppressant for children until early last century when science finally proved it was unhealthy. We’re talking about cancer…feel like taking a chance?
As if the above weren’t enough to completely solidify my disdain for the surge in popularity of cans, I decided to pit a can and bottle against each other…head to head…an outright celebrewty death match! Ok, my endeavor really wasn’t that exciting. I chilled a can and bottle version of Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale from Anderson Valley Brewing out of Boonville, California, next to each other overnight. I took them both out of the refrigerator, approximately 45 degrees, and took time to wash two identical pint glasses to ensure they were clean. I cracked open the bottle, poured conservatively into one glass, then cracked open the can and poured with the same intensity into the other glass. The colors and appearance were identical, which was expected given Anderson Valley’s apparent quality control. But after being outside the refrigerator for only a few minutes before being poured, the can version was notably warmer. Unfortunately it was notably flatter as well. Why? For the same reason salmon live in cold water streams…more oxygen per volume can be dissolved in solution in lower temperature river waters and salmon are high-energy fish requiring lots of oxygen. The beer you’re holding adheres to the same principle. Cold beer is crisper, meaning it retains more carbon dioxide in solution. The bottom line? Warmer beer goes flat faster. Given the heat conductivity of aluminum, I sure hope you’re not holding that can of beer. Transferring your body heat from your hand to that vulnerable libation will result in lukewarm wash of undrinkable slop. We have all choked down that last unpalatable swig from a can. Your Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which just went to can production this year, deserves better.
The craft beer industry has been increasing while the big beer industry has been in decline in regards to percentage of sales. The craft beer industry doesn’t need to start catering to Big Beer customers (those who don’t mind flat warm beer, or who prefer quantity over quality). Rather, it can keep generating enthusiasm in the same grassroots manner it has been, and eventually they’ll come around. Why? Because the craft beer industry has an identity – a reputation to uphold…a reputation that we do it bigger, bolder, more flavorful, with more passion and in the tradition defined by millennia of brewers dating back to ancient times. In the meantime, my fingers are crossed in hopes we all figure out what side we should be on. Let’s can the can.