Why Cans Are Good For Beer

CC-BY Jenn Coyle 2010
Cans have impacts on beer both inside and outside the container.

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.

Upslope Brewing in Boulder, CO releases all its beer in cans.

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.

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, The Can Van makes it possible for local breweries of all sizes to can their beer with a complete packaging service. The Can Van brings top of the line equipment and canning specialists directly to breweries, saving them time and money, and giving them access to the growing market for canned craft beer.

10 responses

  1. The cans are lined with an epoxy coating made with Bisphenol A. It always surprises me that people who wouldn’t dream of drinking out of a polycarbonate bottle would happily guzzle beer out of a BPA lined can. New Belgium admits it on their blog, link below and concludes ” we respect everyone’s right to choose their own level of acceptable risk. Well my level of acceptable risk is that I don’t want BPA in my beer.

    The only green beer bottle is the returnable and refillable one, like they do just about everywhere else in the world but the USA. The purpose of the can was to let the big boys like Bud and Miller ship the stuff across the country and not have to deal with the empties, they shifted that responsibility to you.

    Nobody melts down their pots and pans after a single use. It doesn’t make sense to melt a can or bottle either, it is just trading energy for convenience. http://www.newbelgium.com/Community/Blog/08-06-19/Speaking-of-CANS.aspx

    1. Good call Lloyd.   I like the CanVan and there is an argument to be made that the lighter weight of cans has some ecological benefits in terms of carbon, but as you say, BPA is a growing and known problem that can’t be ignored.  Do you happen to know if *all* cans have it?  What about Kegs?

      As you say, bottles, locally produced, are always going to be the greenest solution – plus when you travel you can try something new!

    2. I think we can all agree that there are many inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement for both cans and bottles. Unfortunately all aluminum beverage cans use liners containing BPA, as well as most food product cans, so there’s no escaping it at the present time. Since so many people in the craft brewing industry are concerned about it, perhaps if the market grows big enough it will be possible to put more pressure on the can manufacturers to develop alternate lining solutions.  Of course a reusable container is always going to be the best option, but where that’s not possible we each have to make our own decisions whether to drink a beer or what container to drink it out of.

    1.  Don’t drink  beer directly out of  can or bottle! ALWAYS pour into a glass so you can enjoy the full aroma and visual appearance of the beer, both of which have a huge impact on flavor.

      1. Bubba is absolutely right. Although, then you have to consider the lifecycle impact of washing a glass that didn’t necessarily need to be used in the first place!

        I think I’ll go drink on this.

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