by Rick Kempen Beer sommelier at Het Bierplein
Canned or bottled beer? The big questionIs beer in cans better? We investigate...
The craft beer revolution always manages to surprise me. Hop-forward, bitter beer has been put back on the map. The beer world has begun experimenting with yeast and malt. And now we’re seeing oats along with other ‘ancient grains’, taking up centre stage beside traditional grains like barley, wheat and rye
The craft beer revolution always manages to surprise me. Hop-forward, bitter beer has been put back on the map. The beer world has begun experimenting with yeast and malt. And now we’re seeing oats along with other ‘ancient grains’, taking up centre stage beside traditional grains like barley, wheat and rye. The result of all this experimentation is clear: beer now comes in many different colours, smells and flavours. And it’s not just the beer. Huge improvements are being made in packaging, specifically with the reintroduction of cans. The question is: should we be happy about this?
So which is better? Canned beer or bottled beer?
Does it affect the taste?
A lot of beer lovers aren’t too fond of the idea of drinking beer from a can. That has a lot to do with the past: not too long ago, untreated tin was used as packaging and the metal gave the beer a bad flavour. I for one am old enough to remember the awful metallic taste that tainted the canned food of my youth. It tasted like blood. But those days are over now, as there are various coatings inside the tin to prevent unwanted tastes.
Then heavier alcoholic lagers became available in pint-sized cans at very low prices, and thus became the beer of choice for people who spent their days drinking on park benches, which for many consumers is an undesirable association.
There is no better packaging for beer than cans.
If you’ve not heard about the benefits before, here’s the top line: cans are the best way to protect beer against the inevitable decrease of flavour over time. Beer is a product made from natural ingredients, and therefore, sadly, does not have an eternal life. The taste reduces rapidly when beer is exposed to light, air and high temperature. Light, especially UV-rays, react with hops and cause nasty sulfur compounds - but tin is 100% light-tight, and thus beats every bottle. Oxygen reacts with beer and causes it to oxidize, making the beer smell like a wet newspaper - but tin is also 100% airtight. The colder a beverage is, the slower biochemical processes that cause the taste to slowly deteriorate - cans cool faster than glass.
Reduce, reuse, reycycle
Let's not fail to mention the countless environmental benefits of using cans. Aluminum can be recycled indefinitely, in fact 75% of aluminium produced since 1888 is still in circulation today. Recycling a can also uses 95% less energy than it does to produce a new one. Aluminum is actually the most recyclable material on the planet because of it's lower density and thus, lower weight. This means it’s cheaper to transport, making for a smaller carbon footprint and therefore reduces emissions.
Point is: cans are, especially for flavoursome beers, the superior beer packaging.
Cans in America
Beer in cans originated as an American invention. Since 1909 businesses have been experimenting with canned beers, but the cans simply weren’t strong enough and they exploded on the assembly line.
On 24th January, 1935, Gottfried Krueger Brewery put them into production. Technical innovations led to workable packaging - but these cans did give off a bad taste. It wasn’t until the end of the last century when these barriers were overcome, and in 2002, Oscar Blues from Colorado became the first craft brewery to pack beer in cans.
Not that everyone immediately believed it - legend has it that Greg Koch, co-founder of Stone Brewing, called Oscar Blues crazy for using cans. Years later he admits that he was wrong for not knowing better at that time. The brewery he opened a few years ago in Berlin does not even use bottles anymore: Stone IPA, Go To Session IPA and even his Berliner Weisse are all on the market in cans! In the USA itself, 30% of all the beer sold is now in cans.
Cans in Europe
Skepticism is now slowly being replaced by admiration in Europe, too. Small, independent breweries in particular are opting for cans instead of bottles. Certainly, when it comes to beer with a strong aroma, such as lager, IPA or Hefeweizen, cans are emerging as a better option. Check out the German brewery And Union for example: they make lagers, Hefeweizen and IPA, all in cans.
The UK generally has historically had less doubts about cans - perhaps they’re a tad more open-minded as a country that so openly embraced cans of beans in tomato sauce. Leading breweries such as Magic Rock, FourPure and Gipsy Hill offer a wide range of craft beer in cans.
Bevog brewery, originally a Slovenian brewery but now located in Austria, joins the acceptance of beer in cans. Their more aromatic beers are canned, but the beers that can take more a beating are bottled.
Cans in the Netherlands
The German poet Heinrich Heine said it best: "If the Third World War ever breaks out, make sure you're in the Netherlands - everything happens there 25 years later". Typical German humor, but it’s kind of true.
Small and independent Dutch breweries are not exactly ahead of the canned beer game. Some exceptions are Brouwerij Kees, Uiltje Craft Brewing and De Molen - they all have a line of canned beers. The collaboration of Kees and Bird Brewing, Mees Kees , also came in cans: the Zeeland edition of the 'Bird on Tour' series.
My prediction is that in 2019, at least five leading Dutch small and independent brewers will add a can series to their assortment. I predicted that two years ago - perhaps this is proof that Heine was right. But let’s get one thing straight: canned beers are a very welcome addition to the beer world!