Even among beer snobs, there is a strict hierarchy, with the lowest caste reserved for those who drink from cans. Even if a cogent reason for such disdain couldn’t be logically constructed, it likely would go as follows: True cerevisaphiles drink from bottles.
Yet more and more craft brewers are following the Big Three breweries into canning and increasingly eschewing glass. Their reasons have as much to do with economics and sustainability as they do with perception.
“Only in recent years have the craft brewers started to embrace the canned beer phenomenon,” said Garrett Peck, historian and author of “Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, DC” and “Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t.”
Advantages of canning over bottling, he said, include lighter weight and portability as well as the ability of aluminum cans to keep sunlight from sullying the beer far better than glass.
Furthermore, the decision to can versus bottle is one of economics, Mr. Peck said.
“If you’re a small craft brewery, you have to lay out all this capital, and at some point you have to decide, ‘OK, am I going to bottle, or am I going to can?’ ” he said. “Because these canning machines and bottling machines are expensive, especially if you buy one brand new.”
Cheaper, lighter, greener
One craft brewery that made the choice to can was the District’s own DC Brau Brewing, which produces its wares in Northeast. Jeff Hancock, co-founder, president and head brewer at DC Brau, which opened in 2009, said that in addition to the sunlight difference — cans result in less “skunking” — cans are easier to order in bulk for a small brewer such as his.
“As far as when we order bulk cans, the freight we pay would be far more expensive if we were doing glass just by the sheer difference in weight,” Mr. Hancock said, which limits the initial capital outlay needed before a single can of DC Brau Public Ale is even sealed.
Additionally, he said, cans are more transportable and far less prone to breakage and destruction.
“I do a lot of bike riding, so you can take cans a lot more places,” he said, “such as national parks, local parks, beaches, things like that.”
He also said that “it just looks cool to me. Nothing against glass, but I think a can looks much cooler.”
In conjunction with the economic argument is the fact that aluminum is far more recyclable, sustainable and reusable than glass.
“Cans are recycled more than glass bottles and more than plastic as well,” said Matt Meenan, communications director at the Aluminum Association, a lobby and trade group for the industry.
Additionally, Mr. Meenan said, cans tend to have far more recycled content than either glass or plastic.
“Your average aluminum can in the U.S. has about 70 percent recycled content,” Mr. Meenan said, “and that compares to the average glass bottle, where you’re about 23 percent, and the average plastic bottle, which is about 3 percent.”
Mr. Meenan said the value of a ton of aluminum in the recycling stream is worth about $1,400 versus $400 a ton for plastic and practically nothing for a ton of glass.
“We like to think of it as recycling is really brought to you by aluminum in a lot of respects,” he said. “Research has shown there’s a 60-day loop where a used can goes in the recycling bin, and then it can be basically back on the shelf as a new can in 60 days.”
A recurring refrain from those interviewed is that while drinkers claim they get a “metallic” taste from drinking beer from a can, the effect, while having a historical basis, is now largely self-imposed by the imbiber.
“Some people will swear up and down that it tastes metallic, but there is absolutely no transfer of flavor from the aluminum to the actual beer,” said DC Brau’s Mr. Hancock. “I think it’s kind of a mental perception, because you’re looking at the can, you’re drinking out of the can, and you’re like, ‘I swear it’s got a tanginess to it or something like that.’”
Beer was first legally canned after the end of Prohibition by a brewer in Richmond, Virginia, Mr. Peck said, as a “packaging that would be more consumer-friendly.” Subsequently, the Coors company invented the aluminum can, which was far lighter than tin but did present somewhat of a metallic taste because of the technology at the time.
Decades later, with the increase in craft-beer-produced bottle snobbery — although ironically cheap PBR played a role in making cans cool again with the hipster set.
“Unfortunately, [aluminum cans] soon became synonymous with cheap, crappy beer,” Mr. Peck said, a sentiment that wasn’t helped by previous eras’ canning procedures.
“For the longest time, people could actually taste the metal, [but] enough adjustments in the technology [mean] the cans essentially now are neutral [in taste]. They’re just a holder for the beer.”
Technological advances in packaging have reduced the metallic taste to near zero, Mr. Peck said, including a can liner that preserves the taste of the beverage within.
But can the perception that drinking from a bottle is somehow more “correct” than from a can be sealed away at the source?
Mr. Hancock points to his colleagues at Oskar Blues Brewery in Colorado — with whom his company has worked on several projects — with beginning a renaissance in canning thanks to their popular Dale’s Pale Ale, which he said broke “the stigma that only bad beer comes in cans. I think they definitely broke down the walls, and now you’re seeing a lot more quality beers in cans.”
A capital problem
Prior to Prohibition in 1920, the six breweries in the nation’s capital pumped out 1 million barrels of beer per annum. When alcohol legally began flowing in America again in 1933, the District of Columbia’s beer output was down to just a tenth of its pre-dry levels.
Mr. Peck said that smaller D.C. brewers such as the Christian Heurich Brewing Co. simply could not keep up with the industrial might that giants Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors used to slake the thirsts of the nation as soon as the ink was dry on the 21st Amendment.
“The beer market had so fundamentally changed because of Prohibition,” Mr. Peck said. Indeed, soon after Heurich died in 1945, the federal government seized his land along the Potomac for what would one day become the Kennedy Center.
In the 21st century, the District produces only 35,000 barrels per year, thanks largely to hometown players DC Brau, Atlas Brew Works and 3 Star Brewing Co.
While the contemporary lack of industrial space in the District makes hitting output levels from a century ago nearly impossible, DC Brau’s Mr. Hancock said cans may in fact make the D.C. taste that much more savory.
“The big guys used to push the freshness,” he said, but beer consumers in D.C. typically drink “beer coming from a big plant that’s getting produced down in Southern Virginia or up in Pennsylvania that’s not as fresh.”
“[Or] you can get something like us that’s being brewed in D.C., and it’s also supporting local business,” he said, “and people can come in and physically see the people making the beer and connect with them one on one.”
Mr. Meenan of the Aluminum Association said he and his colleagues are excited about what they see as a beer industry trending more and more away from glass and embracing aluminum.
“We think canners across the country are seeing the benefits of canning for its sustainability, its versatility and also its taste-protection properties,” he said. “So they’re moving to cans, and we love to see it.”