Aluminum cans have long been the domain of the macro brewers, who tend to experiment with every form of packaging and marketing concept to gain a competitive edge. The brown glass bottle has become so iconic within the craft beer industry that the very idea of canned craft beer gains instant attention. Because so few craft brewers have opted for a canning operation, the association between an aluminum can and a macro product is difficult to break. Hopefully, this association can be changed.
For a small craft brewer, canning equipment and product has long been beyond their financial reach. Purchasing the printed aluminum stock alone is a hurdle most cannot overcome, as they often cannot be obtained in anything less than tens of thousands of units. But as their popularity grows, a few daring craft brewers have chosen the can route over bottles, and it is now up to us, the consumers, to support this far superior choice.
Aluminum cans impart no taste to the beverage. Unlike cans of many decades past, today’s cans have an interior that is lined with a thin, nonreactive plastic laminate. In fact, the beer inside never touches metal, only this plastic coating. The tinny, metallic taste that was once a deterrent for beer consumers is an attribute of your father’s beer, not current packaging.
Aluminum is an excellent thermal conductor. This substance is so great at heat conduction that we fill our kitchens with aluminum pots and pans. What this means for the beer consumer is that cans cool down much faster than bottles, whereas glass is an insulator. If you worry that cans may warm faster than a bottle while you drink it, you should already be pouring a craft beer into a serving glass instead of swigging it from a bottle.
Cans offer 100% light protection. One of the greatest enemies of beer is strong visible light, which contains photons energetic enough to react and break down complex hop oil molecules within the beer. Thus, brewers have favored brown bottles over clear glass to cut down on the amount of light transferred. But not a single photon gets into a sealed can.
Aluminum cans favor an active lifestyle. Many beaches, park areas, lakes and outdoor entertainment venues prohibit glass of any product, as a dropped glass container can result in thousands of dangerous shards spread over the grounds. Cans present no such hazard, and with an empty can weighing less than an ounce while an empty bottle weighs 6 oz, cans are also significantly lighter than bottles in backpacks and coolers.
Cans have a greater packing factor. Packing factor is a concept used in fields as diverse as manufacturing efficiency to atomic structure. Simplified, it is the ratio of how many uniform items can be packed into similar areas, whether those items are widgets or bottles or atoms. With their long and asymmetrical shapes, bottles have a low packing factor; however, with their clever stacking design on both top and bottom, cans have a relatively large packing factor, meaning they are easier and more efficient to transport.
Aluminum is the green choice. Certainly, both glass and aluminum are recyclable materials, with both offering advantages as post-consumer products. But whereas aluminum may be more costly to manufacture from raw materials, it is far more cost-effective to recycle. Recycling glass saves about 26% of the energy over manufacturing new glass, but recycling aluminum reclaims a whopping 96% of that same energy. Colored glass must also be separated manually, adding to its cost, as it takes more energy to rid the glass of the metals used to impart the tint.
There is also the consumer participation aspect, with about 45% of aluminum cans being recycled compared to around 25% of glass bottles. Likewise, much more paper and packaging is used for a six-pack of bottles at retail when compared to a simple plastic six-ring can holder. Add to this the weight factor of shipping thousands of units of product and you consume far more fuel trucking glass around over aluminum.
One young local start-up, Southern Star Brewing, decided to go with a canning operation from the beginning with their first beers, with no plans for a traditional bottling line. Break your association that canned beer must be inferior or compromised, or that fine barleywines or IPAs cannot come from an aluminum container. Support craft brewers that choose a canning operation over bottles, as it is obviously the superior choice.