Beer Can Supremacy: Are Beer Bottles an Endangered Species?

The rise in popularity of the beer can is now being driven by craft brewers.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The first time I ever had a sharply hopped pale ale from a can was around 15 years ago. It was a can of Dale’s Pale Ale and I really liked it.

But even then, it seemed like a novelty, something for boating or poolside or hiking. We all knew that bottles were better, because craft brewers had told us so, right?

What finally sold me on cans, back in 2006, was a trip to the western Virginia mountains to go trail riding with my brother-in-law. The area was a beer desert at the time, so I stopped by the store to stock up before I left. They had cases of an old-favorite—Sly Fox—in cans. A simple weight comparison made the choice easy: A case of bottles weighs just under 33 pounds; a case of cans weighs about 19 pounds. I got four cases for the week! The cans saved me from carrying an extra 56 pounds, and took up the same trunk space as two cases of bottles.

Other than a few early exceptions that didn’t catch on—notably Chief Oshkosh Red Lager, probably the first micro-brewer to introduce a canned beer in 1991—the first successful canned craft beer was my first experience, Dale’s Pale Ale from the Oskar Blues brewery of Longmont, Colorado, that came out in 2002.

But as recently as three years ago, you could still find plenty of news stories about how craft beer was now finally available in cans! Pretty soon you may be seeing stories about how some brewers actually still put their beer in bottles!

In fact, “my current estimate is that 43-percent of craft brewers can,” says Bart Wilson, chief economist for the Colorado-based Brewers Association, though he notes that this is a hard number to pin down. He added that up to a quarter of all production by craft brewers goes into cans now. Take out the still substantial volume of draft, and bottles are clearly getting squeezed. Cans are no longer a novelty, they’re mainstream. These numbers will only grow, since many new breweries go straight to cans as their first packaging choice.

Cans are winning the battle. That’s likely to continue, even with President Trump’s 10-percent tariff on imported aluminum. Chad Melis, speaking to the Denver Post for canned craft pioneer Oskar Blues Brewery, projected that the tariff will add 20 to 24 cents to each case; about half a million dollars annually for that one brewery. It might hurt, but drinkers will pay the added cost for the convenience of the can.

When craft brewing—micro-brewing as it was then known—started back in the 1970s, there were just two ways to get it: draft and bottle. The renegade brewers didn’t can their beer, just like they didn’t brew it in large batches and blend it, or advertise it on television. It sounded virtuous, but mainly it was out of necessity because they couldn’t afford to do any of the things that the bigger brands regularly did.

While most craft breweries still cannot afford TV commercials, cans have been adopted by large and small brands alike. Why? Their light weight and compact size means they’re much easier to transport. Lower fuel consumption, more beer per truckload, less breakage, lighter in the recycling leg of the journey as well: that all means less energy and a smaller carbon footprint in transportation.

Of course, cans offered other benefits as well. The flavor of beer can be badly damaged by light (it turns hop aromas into skunk smell), and the canning process lets less air in the container (less stale flavors), so two big wins over glass right there. Cans rarely break and when they do, they won’t shatter into a million pieces.

But cans aren’t without their critics. Their complaints generally follow three common lines of thought and I can refute them all.

They make the beer taste metallic. Well, that only happens when you drink directly from the can and get that tiny rim of metal on your lips. You don’t get it from the inside of the can, because they’re all lined with a thin coating of epoxy. Pour it in a glass and you shouldn’t have a problem!

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That coating has BPA in it! True, but BPA is mostly a problem for infants, who shouldn’t be drinking beer. BPA comes out of the plastic and becomes an issue when the plastic gets hot...which shouldn’t happen to your beer anyway. Various health agencies aren’t concerned; why are you?

Making aluminum is more polluting than making glass. True, and it also takes more energy. But it’s infinitely recyclable, and each cycle of melt/make takes less energy than glass. What’s more, people are almost twice as likely to recycle cans than bottles, and cans are as much as 75-percent recycled aluminum.

As more people got this, more brewers went to cans. Costs of canning went way down as can makers were able to do smaller runs of labeled cans, and plastic wraps make that even smaller. Entrepreneurs have bought mobile canning lines that come to a small brewery and package beer once or twice a month; no need to buy a line until you’re big enough.

Still, if we’re going to be looking at cans for their environmental benefit, we have to be fair, and admit that there are other options. Kegs are better than recyclable, they’re re-usable. It’s estimated that a keg—made of stainless steel, with a few easily replaced moving parts—has a life-cycle of about 45 years. Even if we don’t use the European model of aseptic keg packaging that doesn’t have to be kept cold, kegs use less energy than cans or bottles because of the density of packaging and over-and-over reusability.

While I would love to have a keg in my house, there’s another practical solution. Do any of you youngsters remember returnable bottles? Not recyclable, returnable: heavier glass, built to be cleaned and re-used with a new label. There’s a small group of brewers in Oregon who’ve made a commitment to buying and using a standard 500-mL bottle that can be returned (in a deposit-refund system), the label is washed off, and re-used by any of the brewers. (Some dairies are also beginning to reintroduce these old-timey bottles for milk.)

Some of the first cases of beer I bought were in returnables. I’m ready for that old style of beer package to come back around. Until then, I kinda like it in the can.