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

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.