Breaking down the beer bottle: in defense of canned beer

12 mins read

Whenever I stop and admire the packaging of beer (i.e. stop and drink), I am reminded of the victory of modern civilization over the forces of Nature. The simplicity of the pull-top can or the twist-off long-neck bottle help me to forget the tragedies of modernity even if just for the span of an ice-cold brew. The way that beer makes it from the fermenter tank to your mouth has technological and industrial history that extends back to the roots of American brewing.

For most of beer’s history, draught was the only option and beer was generally never sold or consumed outside a saloon or similar public house. The brewer would transport wagons of wooden casks or kegs (unrefrigerated mind you) on a daily basis and generally only to establishments within a short driving distance. Improvements in refrigeration technology allowed beer to be shipped further away from the brewing site and eventually into domestic spaces.

Adolphus Busch is often credited with being the first large commercial brewery to utilize refrigeration — he retrofitted a fleet of used cattle rail-cars filled with ice and created a network of icehouses along railroads in order to keep the beer cold on its journey.

Before the introduction of stainless steel or aluminum kegs, the experience of draft beer was far different. Beer was kept in wooden kegs that offered good but not great protection, and without pressurized or nitrogen tap lines it was generally much less carbonated than modern versions. Pouring a pint had to be accomplished through gravity and physics and a simple hand pump. In recent years, serving practices have become politicized and many beer enthusiasts in Great Britain — in response to what they see as an erosion of British culture — have lobbied and campaigned to protect these historical techniques.

For those who are interested in experiencing it, many bars in America serve “cask” (or “real” ale in the rhetoric of the above group) out of firkins, which are wooden quarter-barrel kegs. Though this is probably not the closest bar to do so, Bethlehem Brew-works in Bethlehem, PA has a firkin continually available on its tap list and even holds special discount nights for those interested in trying something different.

Modern beer is most often consumed, at home, in the form of long-necked 12 ounce bottles. However, most establishments (and fraternity parties) still serve beer in draught form from kegs. What exactly is the proverbial “keg” though? First of all, a keg is half of a barrel, a truly massive amount of beer. In the United States a full barrel is 31 US gallons, or roughly 248 pints. I don’t know why there was a need for it to be 31 gallons and not 30, but I am sure there is some bizarre contrivance in the history books. Either way, no one but brewers usually deal with beer in this amount mostly due to the cost and the difficulty of transportation, which is where the keg comes in. Sizes are not limited to the half-barrel portion however; sixth of a barrel, or “sixtels,” kegs have recently become popular with fans of craft beer and brewers because they offer a small-scale draft experience without necessitating the same cost.

Modern kegs are awesome; they keep beer perfectly protected from light, cool quickly and allow for the beautiful experience of drinking beer straight from a tap line (I promise it’s a material, not subjective, difference). However, most of us will spend the majority of our drinking time with a hand wrapped around a bottle and not a pint glass, but the convenience of domestic dipsomania requires some compromises.

Light-striking is an oft-discussed negative quality of forgoing the welcoming gloom of your local watering hole or road house but opting instead for the cold, fluorescent sterility of Total Wine. The chemical compounds that compose a beer, including the wonderful — but oh so delicate — alpha and beta hop acids, are organic and therefore subject to natural forces. Extreme heat can damage the taste of a beer, but light is far more destructive.

Stop for a second and imagine any given beer store: large fluorescent overhead lights, walls of refrigerated, well-lit cases with glass fronts inviting you to browse its icy-cold contents. However, any beer exposed to a source of ultraviolet light for too long can cause negative changes in the beer, a process called “skunking” as the beer takes on characteristics similar in taste and smell to that of a skunk. Open cases expose the beers inside to both the light of the store and of the sun, so even though they are kept cold their flavors can be damaged.

In a perfect world, everyone would be able to get their beer fresh from the brewhouse and drink it straight from an elephant’s tusk. Obviously that isn’t the case, so technology has stepped in the service of civilization. Most craft beer (or any American bottled beer for that matter) is served in 12 oz. (355 ml) “long neck” brown glass bottles, which — in addition to being cheaper to produce than other types of glass — somewhat adequately protect the sudsy contents within. Often, “premium” imports beers like Corona and Heineken and even craft giant Yuengling opt for clear or green glass bottles in order to differentiate their product and increase its perceived aesthetic value and quality.

At the risk of overstepping my boundaries and stepping into polemics, this is a bad thing. Clear and green let all the skunks in, and for what? To look pretty?

What is good for beer is canning. If you just dropped your glass bottle in shock, I don’t blame you because canned beer has long been associated with qualities anathema to the ethos and experience of craft beer. Cans conjure up images of “shotgunning,” head-crushing and Wizard staff-lengthening, Keystone-swilling fraternity parties and backyard barbecues. Glass bottles have become a marker of quality that, in the mind of the consumer, distinguish one pint of Dogfish Head from, say, a tallboy of Stroh’s. Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head’s pretty boy brewmaster, recently made this tension explicit, characteristic of his company’s neurotic obsession with comparing beer to wine. He has said that Dogfish will begin canning their beer when Screaming Eagle, an incredibly well-regarded and ultra-exclusive Sonoma winery, begins canning merlot. Sam is an idiot.

Beer is not and should never be compared to wine. It is asinine and entirely misguided to think of the world of drinks in such a binary, as if an entire range of products can be generalized so easily. First and foremost, not every beer does pair with every meal and every social setting — but neither does wine. I’ve yet to see an oenophile serve Franzia chillable red at a white-tie dinner. Just like fried chicken and cordon bleu still come from the same bird, Natural Light and Raison d’Etre come from the same ingredients but that does not make them the same kind of beer. Focusing on wine as a culinary and cultural enemy is short-sighted and insulting to both sides of the issue. If we shed ourselves of this cultural Napoleon complex we can remind ourselves that packaging has nothing to do with quality, and cans are not the enemy.

So then you ask, why defend cans so adamantly? Like miniature kegs, cans provide complete protection from UV light as well as act as excellent insulators, meaning your beer gets colder quicker and stays that way longer. Moreover, cans are more durable and therefore more transportable, which benefits brewers by increasing space on distribution trucks and reducing fuel costs. Consumers are able to bring their favorite malt beverages into locations where glass is normally not kosher, such as pools, parks or ballgames, and reduce the sticky and dangerous risk of bottles breaking during transportation. There are also possible environmental benefits — cans are recycled at a much higher rate than glass — but this is not entirely convincing given the disastrous effects of aluminum strip mining.

In terms of taste, despite extremely persistent beliefs to the contrary, cans do not leave any residual taste in beer. Modern cans come with an internal liner that insulates the beer from ever making contact with metal. Even if you are concerned about metal interfering through the pop-top opening, well — you shouldn’t be having your beer out of anything except a god damn drinking glass anyway. Any metallic taste is entirely imaginary and a psychosomatic result of years of advertising and cultural condition — or from oxidation, which occurs when hops begin to age.

Tragically, I have run out of space and, now that we have reached the penultimate issue, columns. Hopefully at least some of you have learned a thing or two (or at least something you can bring up next Pub Nite). Cheers all.

Brad is a junior. He can be reached at blenox1@swarthmore.edu.

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