Yes we can! Why canned beer is best

A number of Iowa breweries have chosen to can their craft beers. — photo by Zak Neumann

It’s been an especially hot summer in Germany, and Germans have been drinking lots of beer — so much that the country is having a bottle shortage. Stone Brewing, a California-based craft beer company with a plant in Berlin, has tried to help by canning their beer instead of bottling, but they’ll be hard-pressed to find a German keen to drink from such a lowly package.

“A bottle is much more civilized,” a Berliner beer-drinker told NPR. “[A can] just looks cheap. Cheap and a bit trashy.”

Though Americans are much more likely to pick up a six-pack of tallboys for a tailgate, we, too, tend to turn our nose up at cans. They’re fit for Busch Light, maybe, but when it comes to our beloved IPAs, Belgians, stouts, American Blonde Ales and other craft brews, bottles are better. They just are. Right?

Aesthetics aside, cans are actually the smarter way to package beer.

Big Grove Brewery of Solon and Iowa City launched their canned beer line in May. Head Brewer Andy Joynt said a number of factors went into their decision to can rather than bottle their beers, from the environmental impact — cans are lighter, so less fuel is used when shipping, and easier to recycle — to taste.

“From a quality-of-beer perspective, the can in a lot of ways is superior to the bottle,” Joynt said. “There’s an outdated idea that cans impact the flavor of beer because there was a period of time many, many years ago it did, but that’s no longer the case.”

For the past two decades or so, aluminum cans have been made with a wax coating on the inside; any metallic taste you might detect in the beer itself is either in your head or just the natural character of the beer. Cans also seal much tighter than bottles, so oxygen, being an enemy of good beer, is kept much more at bay, leading to a fresher taste.

“Cans are quickly growing to be the preferred method for packaging for small breweries,” said Quinton McClain, founder of Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids. Lion Bridge debuted their first canned beers on Aug. 21 in four styles. “It works for our [target] demographic — they just grab a pack of cans and go out hiking or boating.”

Besides being lightweight and less fragile than glass, cans also protect beer from its greatest foe: light. Exposure to light is what makes beer skunky (which is why Heineken, with its signature green bottle, has a signature skunkiness). Brown bottles stave off light better than clear or green, but aluminum lets in zero light at all.

When asked if there were any downsides to cans, Joynt came up empty. “From a brewer and consumer standpoint, I don’t see any negatives.”

If this is true, why are there so many bottles of beer on store shelves? Well, why do people spend more than $30 on a bottle of wine? Why does Bradley Cooper keep getting nominated for Academy Awards? The only thing slower to change than our habits are our mindsets, and bottled beer is still perceived by many as more refined. You can hardly blame brewers for turning to the bottle rather than be seen as “cheap and a bit trashy.”

Oskar Blues Brewery was one of the first to challenge the supposed superiority of bottles. The Longmont, Colorado brewers raised eyebrows when they first started canning their Dale’s Pale Ale in 2002. Ultimately, consumers appreciated the move, and dozens of microbreweries have followed in the footsteps of the self-styled “original craft beer in a can.”

“They’ve been canning beer as long as anybody in the craft world and they were the first domino to fall as far as getting craft beer into cans and having success with it,” Joynt said.

Canned beer’s only real competitor is draft beer, Joynt and McClain said, as both come from oxygen- and light-resistant containers (cans and kegs). But convenience may win the day, since the difference in taste between the two is negligible.

“If you hand someone a glass of beer and they don’t know where it came from, they’re not going to know if it was from a draft or can,” McClain said.

Want to test the quality of canned craft beer for yourself? Crack open a can from one of the dozen or so Iowa breweries that have taken the aluminum leap. In addition to Big Grove and Lion Bridge, these include: ReUnion Brewery of Iowa City, SingleSpeed Brewing of Cedar Falls/Waterloo, Kalona Brewing Company, Toppling Goliath of Decorah, Okoboji Brewing Co. and Des Moines’ Confluence Brewing Company and Exile Brewing Company.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 249.