Brewers Have Been All Bottled Up, But Now They're Canning It

Jun 10, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 8:31 pm

You may have noticed a trend clinking around on the shelves of your local liquor store: More and more fancy craft beer is showing up in aluminum cans.

For decades, canned beer was the stuff you bought cheap — the PBR or Natural Ice — bottom-shelf beer. But that layout has changed: The number of craft breweries putting their beer in cans has more than doubled since 2012, according to Russ Phillips, author of a recent book about the art gracing those craft beer cans and manager of the website CraftCans.com. He says five years ago, just a few dozen craft brewers in the U.S. were canning, while today there are more than 500. It seems the association of canned beer with cheap, watery stuff has been gradually washing away.

Can advocates and brewers who are choosing cans say there are clear advantages over bottles: The beer in a can cools faster. The can protects from beer-degrading light. Beer cans are portable and take up less space, advantages both for retailers and for consumers who want to take them camping, hiking or fishing. (See our 2009 piece on Alaska's beer can craze.) There's also more space on a can for wraparound design and decoration.

But there were reasons for the popularity of glass in the first place: While glass bottles take longer to cool down, they also stay cold longer once they come out of the cooler. Plus, glass producers and plenty of brewers will tell you translucent amber glass has been working fine to protect beer from light and air.

The biggest selling point for the bottle, though, is flavor. There's at least a perception that cans impart a metallic taste, whereas liquid stored in a bottle comes out tasting pure.

"That perception is just kind of dated," says Katie Alsip, the marketer for Rhinegeist, a one-year-old craft brewery in Cincinnati. Most aluminum cans these days are lined with a polymer coating that protects the beer from the metal. (That coating, BPA, is a source of health concerns for some, although scientists have found very little risk associated with it.)

The metal touching your lips is still a factor in terms of flavor, but most craft brewers suggest pouring out beer into a glass before sipping, whatever package it comes in.

Rhinegeist co-founder Bob Bonder says the company surveyed retailers, other breweries and potential customers about cans before deciding to go all aluminum. Cans were the hands-down winner. They're "lighter, more portable, easier to bring anywhere, cheaper to ship," he says. And Rhinegeist's sleek, bright design makes it stand out on the shelves.

"I think there's a cool factor to it," says Devon Broglie, as associate global beverage buyer with Whole Foods. The newfound hipster popularity of old PBR may have given canned craft a boost, and some of it, he says, is just personal preference. "Folks just like it."

It may be coolness, or it may be convenience, but the bottom line is, cans are getting cheaper.

While it has become somewhat less expensive to buy your own canning line, the startup costs are still prohibitive for a lot of small brewers. Bottling in-house remains a simpler, cheaper process. Brewers like Rhinegeist say the savings on canning comes later — in the form of less expensive materials. And these days, there are mobile canners who will come to small brewers with equipment and can their beer in an afternoon.

The canning trend is still concentrated in smaller, newer breweries like Rhinegeist or Cincinnati's Madtree. The Brewers Association estimates just 3 percent of craft beer on the shelves is in a can. Sixty percent still goes out in bottles, and the rest is sold in kegs.

"Glass has been a very reliable package and tradition will prove itself well that glass is not going anywhere," says Julia Herz with the association. Even as more established brewers start offering some canned products, Herz doesn't see bottles going out anytime soon.

"There are a lot of occasions where cans are preferable," says Larry Bell, owner and founder of Michigan-based Bell's Brewery. Bell's is now offering 16-ounce cans of its signature Two Hearted Ale and Oberon, both popular summer beers. But he says there's no chance Bell's will shift to cans entirely. "We love bottles as a package; we are dedicated to bottling ... we'll continue to do both."

Lewis Wallace is a reporter for NPR member station WYSO.

Copyright 2017 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Canned beer - what does that make you think of? Milwaukee's Best Light? Schlitz? PBR? Maybe discount brands? Then again, maybe not. Cans are becoming a thing in brewing, no longer just for the bottom shelf at the convenience store. More and more fancy craft beer gets served up in aluminum cans. At member station WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Lewis Wallace has been looking into the trend.

LEWIS WALLACE, BYLINE: Belmont Party Supply is Dayton's craft beer emporium.

GUS STATHIS: So right now we're standing in our shop in Dayton, Ohio and you're surrounded by a whole bunch of beer.

WALLACE: Manager Gus Stathis is pointing to a shelf full of elaborately decorated sixpacks.

STATHIS: Amber ale, a doppelback, IPA, a regular wheat beer, you've got a porter, you've got a pineapple beer, you've got...

WALLACE: Now, cans are usually the vessel for the more watery, light beer - the cheapest kinds you can buy.

STATHIS: Cans kind of for the longest time had this huge stigma because all these awful beers came in cans, right? And all these rice lagers that nobody really liked or whatever.

WALLACE: Not that there's anything wrong with a four-dollar six pack, but the point is metal cans are now trending for the eight-dollar and up stuff. The number of craft brewers canning in the US has more than doubled since 2012. Can lovers say the benefits are endless. Beer in aluminum cools faster. Cans are lighter, easier to store, and no beer-degrading light passes through them. But let's look a bit closer at one of those claims - the idea that cans equal cold. Ursula Perez-Salas teaches physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She says aluminum is a good conductor compared to glass, but that cuts both ways.

URSULA PEREZ-SALAS: It will cool faster, but it will also warm up faster. So that's the bottom line. There are other advantages to glass, which is once you get it cool, it will stay cool longer.

WALLACE: So your sweaty hand will heat up beer in a can. Then there's the price. The cans themselves are usually cheaper than glass, and the canning process is getting more convenient. There are even mobile canners now that drive from town to town, canning craft beer in small batches. Still, cans really haven't taken over yet. Julia Herz is with the Brewers Association.

JULIA HERZ: Not even 3 percent of the craft segment, basically, is canning.

WALLACE: Herz agrees there are some advantages to aluminum, but she doesn't think it's a real threat to the glass bottle anytime soon.

HERZ: Glass has been very reliable package, and tradition will prove itself well - that glass is not going anywhere.

WALLACE: There's a final sticking point. This is probably the most important reason why craft beer, which is all about flavor, tends to come in bottles. A lot of people think cans give drinks a metallic taste.

KATIE ALSIP: That perception is kind of dated.

WALLACE: Katie Alsip is the marketer for Rhinegeist, a new craft brewery in Cincinnati. She's with a co-owner Bob Bonder at the company's huge, sunny taproom. There are thousands of sleek, bright green and orange cans for beers called truth and cougar, stacked on pallets. Bonder shows off a video on his phone. It's the first day they ran the canning line.

BOB BONDER: We were all so happy. We were just standing by getting sprayed by beer.

WALLACE: Most cans these days are lined with a polymer coating that protects the beer from the metal and prevents any metal taste. Katie Alsip says beer in cans is just more convenient.

ALSIP: You can take cans a lot more places - you think about the pool, you think about the golf course.

WALLACE: People can easily bring a can camping or to the beach or, heck, just pop it open at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAN OPENING)

BONDER: Yes, cheers.

ALSIP: Cheers.

WALLACE: OK, that's probably only a good idea if you work at a brewery.

ALSIP: Oh, that tastes extra good right now 'cause it's so hot.

WALLACE: For NPR News, I'm Lewis Wallace.

(MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.