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The Great Canned vs Bottled Beer Debate 2.0: Craft Brewing Weighs In

Presidio Economics | Thursday May 12th, 2011 | 12 Comments

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Millie Milliken

In the early part of the 20th Century, beer drinkers had only two choices when it came to quenching their thirst for a delicious frothy beverage: draught beer or bottles. It wasn’t until the 1930s that canned beer arrived on the scene. Initially, tin cans could not withstand the carbonated pressure and burst. Eventually, technological developments and the introduction of a vinyl liner proved successful in containing the pressure. Then in 1935, Kruger’s Brewery of New Jersey introduced the first canned beer–Kruger’s Finest Beer–to the market, revolutionizing the beer industry. The canned versus bottled beer debate has raged ever since, and now the emerging mircrobrew trend is putting a new spin on the topic.

The traditional debate has centered on factors including taste, convenience, and cost. Beer is a sensitive beverage and exposure to both light and oxygen results in off-flavors. The caps on bottles are not completely airtight, creating a chemical reaction between oxygen and the hops, whereas cans are impervious to both light and oxygen, protecting the flavor, reducing chances of creating a “skunky” amora, and extending the shelf life. Although proponents of bottles have remained steadfast in the claim that cans produce a metallic taste, there has been little empirical evidence to support the claim. Additionally, the lightweight and portability of cans often prove to be more convenient than bottles for both consumers and producers. In regards to shipping efficiency, the longneck design on bottles wastes packaging space, while cans are able to be efficiently packaged and weigh less, which allows more to be shipped at less cost.

With recent concerns regarding sustainability, overall environmental impact has become a new point of contention in this debate. In evaluating the environmental impact of cans versus bottles, there are many factors to consider, including raw material sourcing, processing techniques, recycling rates, the distance of the container manufacturer to the brewery, and the distance of the brewery to the distribution point. Most certainly, manufacturing aluminum cans is extremely resource intensive.  The mining, refining, processing and transporting of bauxite ore, from which aluminum is derived, leaves an extensive trail of carbon emissions in its wake. Contrastingly, bottles are made from the more abundant resource silica and glass processing has lower overall emissions rates. However, the recycling rate for glass in the US is only 28% compared to the nearly 55% recycling rate for aluminum cans. Moreover, beer bottles contain only 20-30% recycled glass in comparison to the average beer can that is made of 40% recycled aluminum. Recycled aluminum requires 95% less energy and produces 95% less greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing new aluminum.

The intricacies of energy consumed in producing aluminum versus glass can be debated until the participants are blue in the face, but one thing is certain: the location the beer is produced, the final destination, and recycling efficiencies all play major roles in the environmental analysis.

As stated, an interesting component in this debate is the explosive growth in craft breweries over the last three decades. Increasing from only 8 breweries in 1980 to the current all-time high of 1,759 breweries, the craft brewing industry is an emerging force. Last year, the craft brewer market share was only 4.9% by volume, but the industry experienced an overall growth of 11% and thus far this year, the growth shows no signs easing. As aluminum cans are becoming more sustainable than ever, and the fact that most people live within 10 miles of a brewery, the rise in craft breweries will minimize the distance between production and consumption, shortening traveling distances with lighter loads.

Known for constant innovation in a quest for creating tasty brews, many craft breweries are switching to cans and debunking the myth that only premium beer comes in a bottle. And as to the claim of the metallic taste? Well, this is no longer valid as cans are lined with a water-epoxy ensuring that aluminum and beer never touch one another.  As more breweries and beer drinkers enjoy the environmental and economic benefits of aluminum, we will continue to see the effects on the canned versus bottled beer debate.


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  • Kate Drane

    Millie —
    Great post. It is wonderful that more craft brewers are adding canning as a product offering.
    Anderson Valley Brewing Company has already started canning, and Sierra Nevada will be serving up cans this summer. Can’t wait! So glad these two environmentally conscious brewers recognize the value and potential in entering this exciting new market.

    • http://www.brewtique.com.au Mike Spencer

      Millie,
      Australian craft brewers do not have cans as yet but follow the trends in the USA. We will be supplying small can lines to those craft brewers interested. I’d welcome the opportunity to make contact with you if you are interested.

      Regards, Mike

  • http://thegreenbacksgal.com/eat-food-in-season-may/ Andrea @ The Greenbacks Gal

    The beauty of craft beers is so many of them have local outlets where you can pop in and just refill your growler. No can. No bottle. A reuseable option. And you can buy local. That is the best way to drink beer!

    • Lauren @dwellanddine.com

      Exactly! Nice point.

  • EdReid

    Nice post, Millie. I’ve always figured that the distances from where I live to the breweries (or contract breweries in some cases) pretty much negate any of the positive environmental effects of canned beer.

    So, who has the smart phone apps for comparing can versus bottle?

  • http://Www.DataSprout.org Cynthia

    Very interesting Millie! We could create some great visualizations of the data you cited. Let’s talk!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Owen-Anderson/645611077 Owen Anderson

    Reduce/reuse/recycle. In Canada bottles are washed and sanitized then re-used so there is no worries about having to spend the energy to recycle. I dont care what they say about the liner in the cans I still think beer from cans doesnt taste nearly as good as beer from a bottle. I only buy bottles and if my brand quits using bottles I will switch to a brand that keeps using them.

  • Jonathan Rondeau-Leclaire

    I think both the efficiency-of-space and the travelling-lighter arguments are the most important, both from the point of view of the producer and from that of the costumer. I believe this is the future of beer; everybody would benefit. And for those who feel the taste different – even though it actually isn’t -, try pouring your beer in a glass, that changer everything (because, true, it might taste a bit different, but that’s only because the lips touch the can)

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelDaehn Michael Daehn

    If you are concerned about flavor it is best to pour your beer into a glass, even if it comes in a bottle. I’m definitely being swayed towards canned beer.

  • Lorenzo

    what’s the price difference between a bottle or a can for a craft brewer? 

    Lomar62

  • http://www.fillingequipment.com/cosmetic-filling-equipment.html Rob Feckler

    Is there really a difference in taste when you drink beer from a can or from a bottle? The beer in a can is lightweight, and it takes just a few minutes to cool it down if you put it in a cooler. Bottled beer, on the other hand, can be considered as the traditional way of drinking your beer. Cans and bottles can both be recyclable and reusable. I think you can still enjoy a drink either way!

  • http://twitter.com/pauledgewater Paul Edgewater

    Beer makes you fat. Drink Vodka.