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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

He Hates The Cans!

Jason Foster
Published Thursday September 3, 05:11 pm
Our beer guy is leery about a growing trend in craft brewing

  To some folks, the rise of cans in the craft beer world might seem like a trend that’s grown slowly over the past while — but maybe I’ve just been out of the loop, because to me it seems their growing usage has suddenly developed from a trickle to a tidal wave.

However you view it, it’s clear that cans are all the rage in craft brewing right now.

In the past few weeks I’ve been talking to a bunch of new breweries that are soon to open on the prairies (I profile all new breweries in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba on my website onbeer.org), and every single one told me they’re going to package their beer in cans.

It was the unanimity that got me. I’ve known for a few years that the decision to package craft beer in cans was a slowly growing tendency, especially in the U.S. But to see that every new start-up on the prairies is opting for cans is something that makes you stand up and take notice — and I find myself oddly resistant to the idea.

For years cans were associated with cheap, corporate pale lagers designed to be drank cold and directly from the can, while craft beer was always put in bottles. The reasons for this were as much about economics as they were tradition, although tradition is definitely a part of it. On the economic side of the equation, cans were cost-prohibitive for small breweries as canning lines were expensive and you had to purchase large quantities of cans per order. As a result, it was cans for the big bland boys and bottles for the craft-makers, and the division was clear and cemented in the consumer’s mind.

But lately, the costs of canning have dropped significantly and a number of established craft breweries have opted to add a canning line. The trend is more pronounced in the States, but Western Canadian examples include Yukon Brewing, Phillip’s Brewing and Central City — as well as newer Saskatchewan craft breweries like Swift Current’s excellent Black Bridge Brewing. Many of the established brewers put cans alongside bottle offerings, creating more choice for their customers.

What seems to be changing is that cans are no longer perceived as a complement for bottles, but as a replacement for them, leading to at least two questions. The first, obviously, is why?

What the brewers are telling me is that the benefits of cans outweigh the negatives. They like how lightweight cans are and the fact that they’re impermeable to light, and they feel that the majority of consumers prefer cans these days. Most of the old barriers to using cans, like expense, no longer really exist, and the former “cheap beer” stigma attached to them seems to be fading fast.

All fair points, but that leads to the second question: Is the rapid increase in can usage a good thing for the beer world — and more importantly, the world in general?

Clearly, brewers that are shifting to cans — or using them exclusively right from the start of their operations — think that it’s a good move economically, and they obviously know far more about their margins than I do. But as a consumer, there are at least a couple of ways to look at the situation, and not all of them are positive.

On the upside, cans definitely rate high on convenience: They’re light, they don’t break and they can be taken to places where bottles are not allowed. They’re also more compact than the industry-standard long-neck.

On the downside, some people say beer tastes different in cans, although that’s pretty hard to verify — especially since the beer doesn’t actually come into contact with aluminum (each can has a plastic liner). There may be concerns about leaching from the plastic, although no study has confirmed that. I’ve conducted many taste-tests over the years (shocking, I know) and have found very slight differences in taste, but it’s impossible to say whether those small observations can be attributed to the package or to some other variable.

I think the much bigger concern is with the question of environmental sustainability. An industry-standard bottle (the long-neck twist-off used by both the big boys and many craft breweries) is re-filled an average of 18 times, while cans are single-use containers that must then be melted down and turned into something new. Plus, recycling rates for cans are lower in Canada, about 80 per cent compared to 97 per cent for bottles.

Aluminum smelting also has a variety of negative environmental impacts, although the rate of recycling aluminum for the creation of new cans is climbing. In cans’ favour is the fact that their light weight reduces carbon emissions during transportation.

A final issue is that cans, in my opinion, also encourage drinking straight from the container. I realize both bottles and cans fall prey to this serious abuse of beer, but cans are more drinker-friendly: They’re easier to grip, and their similarity with pop cans creates a familiarity with the practice.

So: I still have issues with cans overall, and especially the move towards craft beers in cans. On the other hand, the shift seems damn near unstoppable at this point, so we should probably all just suck it up and get used to drinking our beer from cans (after pouring it into a glass, of course!). 

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