Like most Alaskans, I’m fond of hauling my coveted suds into remote places when my travels take me outside of populated areas. Obviously, hauling beer around takes some effort and planning, but modern packaging makes it a lot easier than it ever was. New packaging formats also do more to ensure that we’re enjoying the beer closer to what the brewer intended.
The modern paradigm – which is shifting – is that bottled beer is the best portable format, but that’s simply not true anymore and it certainly doesn’t make a lot of sense here in Alaska, just because we like to haul our beer over long distances and sometimes adverse terrain.
Bottled beer is obviously fragile, bottles add a lot of weight to the package, and people are less committed to round-tripping the bottles to get them out of the wilderness for proper disposal. Cans are the obvious choice, even if you don’t play in the wilderness with beer.
According to the Brewer Collectibles Club of America, Gottfried Krueger Brewing Company introduced the first canned beer in 1935 by releasing Krueger’s Cream Ale and Krueger’s Finest Beer in a flat topped tin can format.
In 1991, Chief Oshkosh Brewing Company released America’s first craft brew in cans: Chief Oshkosh Red Lager. In 2002, the more recognizable Dale’s Pale Ale from Oksar Blues Brewing Company in Lyons, Colorado was released in cans, and it was this product that really caught the attention of craft brewers world wide that were considering packaging lines for their products.
The canned beer format revolutionized beer packaging and changed the industry forever. I recall the days when I was very young and my dad would haul cases of cans on board houseboats that we’d rent to ply the waters of the San Joaquin Delta in northern California. These flat topped cans required a bottle opener – or “church key” to puncture the top of the cans for dispensing into a glass, or the beer could be pounded straight up out of the can, which was my father’s favorite practice.
Although the canned packaging format was instantly popular, the chief complaint by some was that the beer came with a detectible metallic taste. Of all of the modern beer paradigms, this has been the most persistent. Still, thinking back to my Delta days, I never heard my dad complain about any tinny taste in his beer, but his “where the hell did the goddamned church key go” bellow was all too familiar.
Tinny tasting beer may have been around years ago, but advances in the last decade ensure that no beer comes in contact with the packaging (it really never has; all cans have linings) – which is now almost exclusively aluminum – due to improved specialized coatings applied to the can blanks during manufacture.
Physics is one thing; stack 10 cases of canned beer on top of each other and 10 cases of bottled beer and see which of the two formats is more stable. The approximate weight of a case of bottled beer is 36 pounds. The approximate weight of a case of canned beer is 20 pounds. A 16-pound difference in a case of beer can make a huge difference depending on how you’re getting in and out of remote places. Remote lodges obviously benefit greatly from the advent of canned craft beer, especially when it’s common for small planes to deliver the beer as onboard cargo, or even in the floats of amphibious aircraft.
Forget about all that; it doesn’t matter to the average consumer. The two primary enemies of fresh beer are oxygen and light. Cans boast less “total packaged oxygen,” — a measurement of how much air is both in the beer and in the head space of the package – than bottles, and cans are obviously impervious to light. Pull top cans also provide a much tighter seal – in fact an air tight seal – than twist off or hard secured bottle tops ever could. Air and light quickly degrade the delicate aromatics and freshness of the beer.
When I travel outside of Alaska, I’m fond of bringing new beer discoveries back with me to share with my friends. Any more, with airline weight restrictions, the fragility of glass, cans make instant sense, but more so, I know the beer will come back fresher than it will in a bottle. When I used to bring bottles back, I had to put electrical tape around the caps and necks of the bottles and put them in bubble wrap and in plastic zip lock bags because changes in atmospheric pressure in the cargo holds of high flying aircraft can cause beer in bottles to push out around the caps.
Recent canned beer improvements have higher end craft breweries are switching from BPA coated cans to a newer BPA Non Intent, or BPA-NI coated cans because although BPA coated cans don’t impart any flavor to the beer, who likes BPAs, right?
I’m still amazed that even today, people continue to tell me “oh, I never drink canned beer; it’s much better out of a bottle.” I usually challenge them with a simple test.
Go to your favorite grog shop and find a beer that’s available in both cans and bottles. Buy a six pack of each. Heineken, Budweiser and Miller package their mainstay beers in multiple formats recognizing that consumers are finicky and can be set in their ways. Heineken in green bottles and counterpart cans is the best product for the test in my opinion.
Take a bottle and can of each and chill them, then pour them into separate glasses and compare the both the smell and taste of both. The difference should be immediately apparent. Oh, yeah, there are those that come back telling me “I still like the bottle better,” but as far as I’m concerned, that’s because it’s what they’re used to.
Next, take another set and set it in your windowsill, outside, or anywhere in the sun. You won’t need to leave it there long; light’s damaging effects happen in as little as two minutes. Still, let them set a good half hour or hour or so and repeat the experiment by chilling, decanting and sampling the two beers side by side in glasses. If nothing else, the aromatic difference should be even more profound. Some people attribute a “skunky” character to light-struck beer, and it’s a good descriptor.
You can take the experiment further by wrapping cans and bottles in some clothing and putting them in a suitcase and tossing them down your stairs – which is a loose equivalent to the rigors of airline travel, but why bother? I think you get the point.
Finally, our craft brewers are moving away from the more familiar growler format – glass jug bottles in various sizes that are filled from the tap at the brewery or bar with screw on lids – to crowlers, which are essentially the large can format answer to canned portability when a brewery doesn’t have a canning line or wants to add the same diversity to packaging that growlers do. Growlers have a very short shelf life; they’re good for a couple of days before the beer’s flavor starts to change. I’ve had crowler-ed beer that’s been good up to two weeks later, although even that’s not ideal.
What you like your beer wrapped in is your call, but even if you don’t need to take your beer any further than from the grog shop to your refer, canned beer just makes more sense today, is better for the environment, but most importantly is much closer to what the brewer designed the beer to taste like and you’re getting a better product for your hard earned bucks.
The advent of growlers brings us the ability to get beer from our local breweries that don’t otherwise package their beer in bottle or can format, or do so, but want to offer another option to add portability.