Surprise! Online discussions remain heated when canned craft beverages are the subject.
When it comes to how craft beverages are packaged, beverage producers make informed decisions based on beverage quality, budget, market and growth strategies, and other business considerations. Consumers, on the other hand, approach the topic with raw emotion, abandoning rational debate in favor of taunts, insults, and fiery rants.
Sampling a variety of online discussion groups blowing up over the controversy is not for the faint-hearted. After sifting through hundreds of messages on dozens of sites, we narrowed the list of arguments to the following (and added our own take on each objection):
Putting a fine craft brew in metal is akin to painting fine artwork on cardboard! This is easily the top argument online — but really, it is a purely emotional rant against the concept of canned craft beer. Inevitably, proponents of this argument end up sputtering when someone points out that highly esteemed beer served from a tap comes directly from an aluminum keg, and that virtually every brewery uses metal tanks in the brew process.
It just tastes different and I don’t like drinking from a can! This is another argument that goes round and round— but this stance is more factually balanced and less refutable. Many tests have proved that very few people can discern any difference in taste or quality between beer poured from a can vs. a bottle. However, when tasted directly from the container — glass wins. No one can dispute personal preference, so this argument will probably be around for a long time.
Only sellout beers come in cans! This is hyperbole, but the argument does have a grain of truth in its inverse — that is, noncommercial and small-scale craft brews are less likely to be canned because economies of scale make glass the better choice for smaller batches. If you believe the only beer worth drinking is brewed in ultramicro batches, well, you may have a point. But this argument is still dead wrong; some seriously good craft beer comes in cans and the number is growing.
Cans/ bottles are better/worse for the environment! This argument can get quite arcane very quickly. Aluminum cans are highly recyclable with rates in the U.S. reportedly as high as 95% reuse compared to rates nearer 50% for glass. (Much “recycled” glass is actually ground into powder and incorporated into other products such as concrete.) Glass lovers like to point out that glass making requires less energy and rare raw materials, and aluminum fans tout the much lower fuel consumption that results from transporting lighter containers. The reality is that most studies show aluminum cans are somewhat better for the environment, but probably not as much as people think, and variables such as bottle washing and reuse rather than recycling can change the equation.
The coating in cans is poisonous! Polymers used to coat the inside of beer cans are safe and certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and decades of studies. A few studies of the same materials used in other packaging types have shown a possibility of creating reputed carcinogenic compounds when heated to temperatures beyond 120 degrees F. Basically, the lining is not toxic unless you heat your canned beer for an extended period of time. Even then, the science isn’t clear cut.
Make up your own argument! That’s the fun part: You don’t need actual facts or even a well-founded opinion to contribute to an online discussion.
And What About Plastic?
Glass containers have been widely replaced in the food and beverage industry by durable, easily recycled, light, and inexpensive plastic containers. However, most U.S. consumers have never encountered a commercial plastic beer bottle. That probably won’t change in the near future for a variety of reasons.
The biggest reason is shelf life. Beer is very sensitive to ultraviolet light, which degrades beer quickly. The clear plastic used in beverage packaging doesn’t offer the light protection needed — and creating amber-colored plastic would cost more and seriously complicate recycling efforts. Additionally, the plastic commonly used is semi-permeable, meaning that gases can escape. A much shorter shelf life simply isn’t an option for most brewers, big or small.
Related to shelf life is “leeching,” where some components of the container can react with the beer. The predominant beverage-grade plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is known to react over time (mostly at moderate to high temperature) to produce potentially taste-altering, unhealthy chemicals. No craft brewer is likely to sacrifice taste and safety for the slight benefits plastics may provide.
Finally, plastic bottles can’t typically stand the high temperature pasteurization required for most packaged beer. Once it is heat reinforced, colored, and treated to hold carbonization, plastic loses its recyclability, cost, and much of its weight advantages.
European brewers have been experimenting with plastic packaging, but mostly for special promotional events and marketing. MillerCoors Brewing recently began producing a limited number of 32- and 40-ounce plastic bottles of its least expensive beers, but has no plans to use the technology for its premium or single-serving products. Technology will almost certainly make plastic a viable option in the future, but right now it isn’t a player in the craft (or commercial) beer market.