A canned debate

Canned beer is the epitome of crap beer. Or at least that’s how most people see it. In fact, cans have major benefits over bottled beer. It is just that the expense and size of canning systems have long made canned beer an unreasonable option for smaller, quality brewers. Fortunately this is changing. Canning systems have become more affordable and now there are around 200 small brewers replacing the crap beer in cans with craft beer.

Oskar Blues Brewery was the first craft brewery to take advantage of can’s benefits. In 2002 they hand canned their Dale’s Pale Ale, a solid example of the American-style Pale Ale style that possesses a pale copper color accompanied by a grapefruit and grassy-floral perfume with a toasted caramel sweetness. Since then they have become the leading voice for canned craft beers.

Compared to bottles, cans make a much sturdier vessel. Glass can be an elegant, sparkling sight but it is fragile. Have you ever dropped a bottle of beer? Time slows as you watch it fall. Then the impact. You see countless pieces fly to unknown locations as you watch the two bodies collide. The bottle’s insides splatter across the floor like a gruesome crime scene as a single tear forms in your eye. This painful event could have been easily avoided with just a single can of beer. Cans are a challenge to “break” and the average trip downwards may dent them but will not rupture them (although I would not suggest drinking the can of beer immediately after dropping it). Cans durability allow them to be brought to beaches, parks and other areas that might not allow glass on their premises.

Not just practical, but sustainable
Aluminum cans also provide a lighter weight and more compact container than glass bottles. This allows more cans to be packaged in shipping containers and less fuel to be used when transporting them. Saving money for the brewery, but more importantly, providing a greener form of shipping beer. A fact that has been taken advantage of by Maui Brewing Co. who has to ship their beer all the way from the Hawaiian islands. Brewery owner, Garrett Marrero, with his congenial personality and sun-kissed complexion, is one of the most recognizable figures at beer events. He is also one of the leading advocates for canned beer.

Garrett’s beers can be found around town and I suggest seeking out their soothing Bikini Blonde Lager or roasty, dessert-like CoCoNut PorTeR. Right now they have a specially released Lemongrass Saison, brewed in conjunction with Lost Abbey Brewing, so look for it around Santa Barbara’s beer shelves. This farmhouse-style beer fills the glass with a mellow yellow color. The lemongrass aroma is brisk with a hint of mint. These elements are accented by a black pepper note and bubblegum undertone from the Saison yeast. The beer has a light, sweet-biscuit flavor that is gently carbonated to give it a soft finish.

May contain flavors inside
The ecological benefit from cans is only one of their advantages over bottles. Think about how a beer bottle is closed. A “crown cap” is pried over the bottle’s glass opening. Even though there is a PVC lining underneath the cap that acts as a gasket, this form of closure allows a minute amount of air to pass through, introducing oxygen to the beer and reducing its shelf life. Most caps contain an oxygen-absorbing component to the PVC lining however it is not perfect. In comparison, cans are a completely sealed vessel that allow zero oxygen through, preserving the beer’s flavor longer.

This is best represented in hoppy beers because the hop aromatics are the first thing to degrade in beer flavor. Sculpin IPA from the San Diego-based Ballast Point Brewery is now available in both bottles and cans. Try them side-by-side to see the difference. In cans, this masterpiece of the American IPA style has a sunset golden hue and is laden with mango, Meyer lemons, and pit fruit aromas. There is a touch of pine from the hops and this gives the beer a  a resinous, malty-sweet taste. The bitterness is robust but neither harsh nor unpleasant and rounds off the beer’s finish. In the bottled form, Sculpin’s bitterness is a little sharper and the hop aromatics have a sulfurous-tinge to them.

Speaking of hoppy beers, there is a reason why beer bottles are brown. The bittering compounds found in hops are light-sensitive. When beer is exposed to UV rays, 3-methylbut-2-ene-1-thiol (MBT), a sulfur-containing compound, is released that gives the beer a “skunky” aroma. This reaction happens quickly. It is considered to go to completion within one minute of direct exposure to light. Brown glass absorbs nearly all of the harmful rays and protects the beer from skunking but it is still not perfect. Similarly, dark beers (like stout and porter) absorb the light and the reaction can not take place in the liquid.

But then why are some beers in green or clear (flint) glass? Marketing. Green bottles provide little protection and clear bottles provide none. Beers packaged in green or clear bottles will sometimes have “modified hop products.” Miller back in the ’50’s developed a process that extracted the bittering acids from the hop matter and then further processed them into a form that would not react in the presence of light. This allowed them to construct a light-stable beer that could be packaged in clear glass, better displaying “The Champagne of Beers.” These hop products are suitable for beers with next-to-no hop content but they can not completely replace the hops in stronger flavored beers.

Canning concerns
But cans are not perfect and there is an argument against them. While many people call cans “mini kegs” there is a fundamental difference between the two containers. Kegs are “recycled” by being returned to the brewery, cleaned and sanitized, then refilled. Since the container continues to be reused without alteration (some kegs last several decades before being retired), strong, durable stainless steel makes a better material choice for their extended use.

Cans are recycled by being melted down and then recast. Aluminum is one of the most abundant elements on the planet, very easy to recycle, and its structural properties make it better suited for cans than stainless steel. Recycling aluminum requires 20 times less energy than it takes to produce virgin aluminum however most cans are not made entirely of recycled aluminum. One of the rising concerns is that the environmental harm from bauxite (aluminum ore) mining may undo the other environmental benefits from cans. In response, brewers have started trying to use only 100% recycled aluminum cans.

There is one more major argument against canned beer. Aluminum can not be exposed to food products without altering their flavors. An epoxy resin lining is added to the inside that separates food from metal. In neutral (pH) food products, like beans, non-BPA linings can be used however acidic foods, like beer, need to have a BPA-hardened lining (stainless steel does not change beer flavor so kegs do not need a lining). The harmful effects and exposure limits to BPA are still hotly debated however it is good to be aware that this lining is present in cans.

Despite these points, cans still make a wonderful vessel for preserving beer’s freshness and I would advocate this option when available. The rise of canned craft beer illustrates the industry’s drive towards quality, ecology, and just changing drinkers’ perceptions of beer.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel on September 10, 2013

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