Drinking beer from cans has always created a low-end association in my mind. It takes me back to being a teenager, chugging Busch or Natty Light in the back of someone’s car on a random Tuesday night as we careened through the Southeast Ohio hills on winding country roads.
I grew up, as we all do, and over the decades my beer palate (and my tolerance for risk) changed. Yes, I became a bit of a beer snob, I suppose, though I’ll rarely turn up my nose at a cold one if someone’s offering. My preconceived notion that high-end beer does not belong in cans has been difficult to dispel.
If I’m paying $11.99 for a six-pack of craft ale, shouldn’t it be presented in a glass bottle?
But like it or not, the beer can resurgence has been ramping up for more than a decade, and it seems to be here to stay. Breweries cite a number of reasons for switching to aluminum cans, and local favorites such as Great Lakes Brewing Company are no exception.
My husband and I have been drinking Great Lakes beers since the 90s, when bars in Athens, Ohio stocked the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Dortmunder Gold Lager, and Eliot Ness Amber Lager. When we settled in Cleveland more than a decade ago, GLBC beers took up a regular spot in our beverage refrigerator.
GLBC is the beer hill I will die on. Tell me you don’t like its brews and I’m liable to either fight you or buy you one to try to convince you otherwise. When I realized Great Lakes was migrating exclusively to aluminum, I sat up and took notice.
GLBC began offering specific beers in cans in 2017, such as the Rally Drum Red seasonal beer we’d grown accustomed to drinking at the bar across from Progressive Field before Cleveland Indians baseball games. At least, we did that back when Brickhouse was still there, and not some stupid bank that’s apparently staffed exclusively by hipsters who frequently stand on the patio smoking.
In October 2020, GLBC opened a new canning line and warehouse facility in Strongsville, about 20 miles down the road from its Ohio City production facility and brewpub, allowing it to can beer locally. Since then, it has rolled out many fan favorites in aluminum, including Dortmunder, Hazecraft, Great Lakes IPA, Commodore Perry, Burning River, and seasonal favorites like the Chillwave Double IPA and the Lake Erie Monster. Look for Christmas Ale in cans later this year.
And Great Lakes Brewing Company is far from alone. Many popular breweries, in Northeast Ohio and around the state, either started out with a cans-only format or are switching completely or partially to cans. Akron-based Thirsty Dog put out its first canned beer in early 2020, the same year Fat Head's shifted its popular Head Hunter IPA to cans. Brew Kettle made the move to cans in 2019. Cincinnati's Rheingeist and Athens' Jackie O's have always distributed in cans unless you have the good fortune to land someplace that serves their fine beers on tap.
If some of my favorite breweries were switching to aluminum, I thought, maybe I needed to take another look at the packaging format I've maligned for years. There had to be a reason for the change, and I doubted it was just about cost.
Turns out I was right. The decision to move from bottles to cans is complex and involves quite a few perceived benefits for breweries, distributors, retailers, and yes, even consumers.
While I was correct that cost is but one factor in the cans vs bottles comparison, it is an important one. Cans are cheaper and more efficient to ship and warehouse. They are lighter and easier to stack.
This benefit applies to breweries, distributors, and retailers. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like price reductions are passed on to consumers, but perhaps the savings will allow ever-soaring beer prices to remain stable for a while.
An empty aluminum beer can weighs about half an ounce. An empty glass bottle weighs six ounces. Aside from the cost savings associated with that lighter weight, think about the ease of transport for consumers as well. It's a lot easier to carry a cooler with 24 cans of beer than 24 bottles when considering both weight and storage.
Beer in bottles, particularly those that are clear or green, can acquire that "skunked" odor and flavor when exposed to light (not heat or temperature changes, as some people think). Beer is often stored in brightly lit display coolers, in six-packs that leave half the bottle exposed to that light.
Beer in cans doesn't get skunked, and it doesn't become stale. While you might roll your eyes at the thought of your bottled beer going "bad", the caps do allow a certain amount of air to get in which, over time, will degrade the quality of the product. Not so with cans.
Aluminum cans have an interior coating so the beer doesn't come into contact with the aluminum (unless you're drinking it directly from the can, in which case you could still get a slightly metallic flavor).
Blind taste tests have shown that while many people think beer tastes better from a bottle, they actually can't perceive the difference.
4. LABEL ART
Eye-catching labels are important in the beer industry, especially for small craft producers who need to catch consumers' attention. They don't have, at least when starting out, the name recognition of macro breweries or even larger microbrew brands.
Cans present a larger canvas than bottles, especially the 16-ouncers. All the more room for that vibrant label that makes a beer browser want to take a second look.
Because glass bottles are breakable, shipping them requires sturdy cardboard packaging that isn't necessary for cans.
And aside from the obvious potential for breakage, more product recalls have occurred on bottled beer than canned over the years, due to problems like over-carbonation or chipped rims.
Before starting my research, I expected sustainability to play a big role in the bottle-to-can conversion. The craft beer industry as a whole has largely been interested in and supportive of environmental initiatives and the sustainability movement.
Many brewers site environmental issues as a reason for moving to aluminum cans. At a glance, they may seem to be more environmentally friendly, but digging deeper reveals a confusing mix of information and no clear winner.
Shipping cans involves a much smaller carbon footprint than shipping bottles due to weight. According to a Slate article, transporting a bottle emits 20% more greenhouse gasses than transporting a can. Because aluminum cans get colder, faster, less energy is required to get them to the desired temperature.
At large public events like concerts, festivals, and sports games, drinkers are required to pour beverages from glass bottles into single-use plastic cups, creating more waste. This is not the case for aluminum cans.
Bottles and cans are both recyclable (bottles are made from 20-30% recycled material compared to 50-70% for cans), but a recent study showed that people are 20% more likely to recycle cans than bottles. Granted, this study was funded by the Aluminum Association, but the findings make a certain amount of sense.
Facilities that recycle glass are harder to find. This results in many municipalities refusing to accept glass bottles as part of their recycling programs, either temporarily or permanently.
Cans are easier to recycle, and the turnaround is lightning quick. Aluminum can be recycled and back on the shelf within 60 days.
This sounds like aluminum cans should win the gold medal on the sustainability front, right? Not so fast.
The environmental issue with cans comes into play when creating new aluminum. It requires the mining of bauxite (a clay mineral made up of aluminum hydroxide, iron, titanium, sulfur, and chromium) which is destructive to the local terrain and air quality. Bottles are made from silica which is readily available and mining it has “minimal environmental impact” according to the United States Geological Survey.
The U.S. gets almost all its bauxite from Australia, Guinea, and Jamaica where there have been environmental controversies about mining. According to EuroNews:
All-in-all, recycling a can uses 90% less energy than recycling a glass bottle...But to produce a tonne of virgin aluminum from bauxite can uses 10x as much electricity as manufacturing the same amount of glass from sand. This is because of the mining process for bauxite, and the fact that it takes 4 tons of bauxite to make a single ton of new aluminum.
All of this essentially means that if your can is made from partially recycled aluminum, it’s a better choice than glass, though a virgin glass bottle is less harmful than a virgin aluminum can But with increased demand for aluminum cans, bauxite mining is exploding and this scenario is bad for the environment.
Consumers are far more accepting of cans than they were 10 years ago, as more new and established craft breweries have started distributing with an aluminum-only format. Beer snobs like me are getting over our disdain for aluminum, as we realize the flavor is not altered.
Improved technology helps, too. Aluminum cans pour better today than they did in the past, and formats such as 16-oz and slim profiles have become popular. We might even see resealable cans at a store near us.
Bottles probably aren't going away anytime soon. After all, there are types of beer and ale, and specific brewing processes, that do not lend themselves well to cans. Certain Belgian styles require a second fermentation, with yeast and sugar added directly to the bottle. Many of these ales come in 750-ml bottles, and the process does not lend itself well to canning, since the second fermentation might cause the cans to explode!
When it comes right down to it, many Northeast Ohioans are lucky enough to have a brewery (or several) within walking distance or a short drive from our homes. Our freshest most sustainable option is likely to purchase a refillable growler, but that isn't always feasible.
I'll continue to buy my favorite beers in whatever formats they're available. The most important thing to me is to keep supporting local and regional breweries that produce superb beers.
Maybe next time we’ll talk about canned wine. Boxes? Maybe. Cans? I'm going to take some convincing.
Meanwhile, I'm heading to my local brewery to fill up my growler. Cheers!