May 19, 2011

Not a Hater, Not a Canboi: The case for measured enthusiasm for canned beer.

FTC disclosure: All free.
You can't go anywhere these days without someone telling you about the latest craft beer to come out in a can. Cans are better for the environment. Cans are cheaper. Cans prevent oxygen from getting into bottles. Cans are easier to chill.

In fact, there's a craft beer can fest this weekend in Chandler, the Ameri'CAN' Beer Festival. You should go. There are some tremendous beers being served.

For the record, I like cans. I don't love cans. Full disclosure: I was a judge at AmeriCAN and I have been given canned beers to taste by many of those breweries. I will also be at the festival supporting those breweries.

Cans are the right tool for the right job, but they are not the future of all beer. There are perhaps 100 decisions made before a beer gets from the brewery to you and the can is only one of them.

Package or Process
Recently, Four Peaks put Hop Knot to the taste test pitting draft against bottle against the soon-to-be-released canned version. Early indications are that the canned version has superior hop aroma over the bottle and draft versions. Though I did not take part in the taste test. I did have the opportunity to taste the canned version and compare it to the draft version a week ago and I can confirm the taste test findings. Canned Hop Knot has more hop aroma than draft.

The can wins then, right?

Well, not necessarily.  The increased hop aroma might have more to do with the canning process than the actual container. My understanding is that canned beer is packaged at higher carbonation level to assist in purging the can of oxygen. The slightly higher carbonation might cause aromas to be volatilized more efficiently rendering more initial aroma. Might a change in the kegging or bottling process even the slate with cans? I admit, that's the extent of my theory of beer packaging. Still, I must concede, to the consumer, this point is meaningless. You want more aroma, grab the can.

But process is important. If you want to take advantage of things like a cans lower oxygen intrusion, then you have to make sure all of the oxygen is out in the first place. Canning lines require a rock-solid process to make sure cans are properly purged and filled before the lid goes on. The wider opening increases the potential for unintended things like wild yeast and oxygen to get inside. Some breweries are going to be better others at this. If you want to know which ones, hold on to some cans for 3 or 4 months and check for oxidation.

Distribution and Care
Can also have the distinction of preventing beer from being light struck. All things being equal this is undoubtedly true. But there are hours, days and possibly months between when a beer leaves the brewery and gets into your hands. If you've ever had a problem with a brown bottled craft beer getting light struck, that beer was mistreated in probably a number of ways. It either languished on a palate outside in the AZ sun or sat too long on a sunny shelf. While a similarly mistreated can of beer won't get skunky, It'll certainly get warmed up in the sun and it will do so much quicker. (Cans that cool off quicker also get hotter faster.) We should encourage distributors and retailers to treat all beers properly.

Economics
Cans have a cheaper price per unit, but there are a number of capital costs to overcome as well as economies of scale that must be in place before any savings can be passed on to the consumer. Bottles can be purchased in smaller quantities than cans and it is far easier for a brewery to change out a paper label than it is to have ten of thousands of new cans manufactured. It's for this reason that you don't see very many limited production runs of specialty beer in cans. As much as I love Oskar Blues for it's can-only mentality, that decision limits that brewery to 6 beers.  If you want to understand the depth of what that brewery is capable of, you have to go to the brewery and get a tap or growler. Once you do, you'll wish they had a bomber line. Whiskey Oaked Dale's Pale or Devious Dales... only in the brewery or brewpub.

Perception
Call me old school, but sometimes I prefer a bottle. Cans are what screw tops are to wine and you'll find undeniable evidence of this in restaurants across the country. The screw top, like the can is a superior technology, but you're just not going to see them on white table cloth establishments. We've made the case for large format bottles here. The shorter version of that post is that people going to finer restaurants want sharable bottles, wine with corks and romantic presentation. It's hard enough to get good beer in restaurants and though we have seen cans in nicer places, it's currently being treated as a novelty. Don't expect breweries to lead this charge, when it may be far more pragmatic to push keg and bottles.

Beer comes to us in a variety of ways. Don't be a Canboi.

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