By Jenn Coyle
Cans are now becoming ubiquitous in the craft beer market, from the aisles of upscale grocery stores to the lakes and rivers of summer recreation. At the latest count, CraftCans.com lists 184 breweries offering 556 canned craft beers. Happily, this can craze is more than just a trendy packaging choice, it’s also good for beer.
The “can vs. bottle” controversy
Some of the most prominent craft breweries, like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, have embraced cans, while others, like Lagunitas, have pledged a commitment to remain only in bottles. For consumers, it can seem like a lot of extra controversy in what should be a simple decision about what to drink. The truth is that it’s a complex issue with many layers, and the correct choice will largely be determined by personal priorities.
New Belgium has provided a balanced voice in the debate, posting on its blog in April that even with all the volume of research on the life cycle and greenhouse gas emissions of beer packaging materials, there is no clear answer as to whether glass bottles or aluminum cans are environmentally superior. Bottles may win the argument early in the product lifecycle due to the heavy impacts of mining bauxite for virgin aluminum, but then cans have considerably higher recycling rated than bottles, and can contain up to 68% recycled content, according to Earth 911. In fact the Can Manufacturers Institute points out that the value of recycled aluminum is high enough to subsidize the cost of collecting other materials in curbside pickup programs. Can production also has lower greenhouse gas emissions due to the location of power-intensive aluminum manufacturing facilities near hydroelectric power sources, which of course have their own impacts.
As a consumer, you could choose your container based on which issue is important to you, or just call it a toss-up.
Good for beer
But the good things cans do for beer go beyond the contentious environmental metrics. Aluminum cans protect their contents from light and oxygen, creating an environment where beer can age well and retain the freshness and flavor that the brewer intended.
The light weight of cans means that the finished product can be transported more efficiently than other packages, and canning breweries get access to markets where cans just make sense. With craft cans, beer lovers can choose among a wide variety of styles from local breweries to drink while enjoying outdoor activities like sporting events, barbeques, floating, and hiking. For these reasons many new breweries are choosing cans as their only packaging choice. Altogether cans are helping the bottom line for craft breweries, an industry which The Brewers Associationreports employs over 100,000 people in the US.
As more small local breweries offer beer in cans, these positive impacts will grow, allowing us all to support our local brewers while drinking more good beer in more places.
Research assistance provided by Heath Cox. Images (c) 2012 Jenn Coyle, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license
Jenn Coyle is co-founder and CEO of The Can Van, a mobile canning service for craft breweries based in the San Francisco Bay Area.