Ditch the Bottle? Microbreweries Say Can-Do

Craft brewers that have moved away from the classic beer bottle are reporting higher sales and lower operational costs, all while producing a beer that's better for the environment. Yes, they can.

Late summer's the perfect time to crack open some wheaty, hoppy creation from one of the country's more than 1,500 craft breweries. But don't you dare reach for the bottle opener, says Marty Jones of Oskar Blues brewery, based in Lyons, Colorado, who is busy changing industry perception as well as making six-packs of irreverent ales like Mama's Little Yella Pils. "Our beer from a can is like Big Maybelle's voice coming from Ashlee Simpson's mouth," he says. "Folks don't expect such glorious, full-throated art from the lowly can."

<a href=Oskar Blues" width="300" height="400" />As the first microbrewery to start canning its beer in 2002, Oskar Blues leads a pack of about 40 craft beer makers who are making the switch to aluminum in the name of both sustainability and better drinkability. Notably, New Belgium Brewery, the Fort Collins, Colorado brewery known for its super-sustainable policies--it became the first wind-powered brewery in 1999--started canning its popular Fat Tire in 2008, and this year released its perennial summer hit, Sunshine Wheat, in a can.

While the craft beer industry itself is experiencing healthy growth--5.9% by volume and 10.1% by dollars in 2008, according to Beertown.org--canned craft beer sales have exploded. They increased 160% in the last half of 2008, according to Cask, a canning system used by craft-beer companies. Its Web site points out the benefits of switching from glass, including increased convenience, decreased costs, and the possibility that an egalitarian can might reach more consumers than a snooty bottle. Perhaps that's the key: Oskar Blues reports that its sales are up 80%.

sunshine-wheatThe sustainability facts seem to be in the can's favor. Consumers are more likely to recycle cans, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute: 52% of aluminum drinking cans get recycled, which is the highest recycling rate for any beverage container. The aluminum can is also the only packaging solution that is 100% recyclable. A study on Planet Green showed that the can starts as a greener receptacle, because the average beer can already contains 40% recycled aluminum, compared to about 20% to 30% recycled glass in bottles.

According to Jones, the move to aluminum has also helped Oskar Blues save some serious shipping charges. "About 35% of the weight of a bottle of beer is the bottle," he says. "Beer is shipped by weight, so we get 35% more beer on truck."

Perhaps the biggest challenge holding back the craft-brew industry from embracing the can even further is the consumer perception, long encouraged by microbreweries, that the glass bottle signifies a premium beer. "No doubt, one of the biggest hurdles to our success has been the perception of canned beer," says Jones. "Before we came along, they held bland, watered-down beer that doesn't inspire craft beer fans." Remember those ads for Samuel Adams where a wavery-voiced Jim Koch basically told consumers that a bottle equaled better beer?

sly-foxNo more. Cans are lined with a water-based epoxy so aluminum and beer never meet. And advocates say cans actually improve on a bottle's design by eliminating the "headspace," that little pocket of air that you see at the top of a bottle. They also keep beer fresher, longer, because their opaqueness provides the beer full protection from light and oxygen. In 2007, Pennsylvania-based Sly Fox Pikeland Pils won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, beating out bottled competition and putting to bed any myths about the metallic taste of beer in a can.

But we all know where the real judges sit. So I asked a bartender at the legendary Los Angeles gastropub Father's Office, where a carefully curated lineup of taps run the length of the bar. Here, the tap handle for Oskar Blues' Old Chub is proudly designed to look like a can, making it quite obviously the only canned beer represented on this wall o' microbrews. It's a popular beer, said the bartender, and he agreed that aluminum does protect beer better. But for some real insight, he encouraged me to look past the bottle, past the tap, and all the way back to the source. "Think about a keg," he said. "It's really just a giant can."

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2 Comments

  • Ryan Thompson

    While, based on personal experience, I agree that drinking beer from a can or bottle doesn't make a difference in taste, the social perception differs widely. A canned beer is looked upon as cheap beer. That would sure prevent a lot of good brands to go into the can. Also my friends who love drinking beer, I have noticed that they prefer to go for a bottle skipping on can of a better beer. Sometimes, its just not about the cost, its about the presentation of the product.

  • Philip Hubertus

    In Germany beer was also available in cans for a long time and well accepted by consumers.

    In 2003 a refund was introduced for beer and soda sold in cans and other one-way packages. The green secretary of the environment argued this was needed to reduce the pollution by the cans.
    In the first 9 months consumers had to return the cans where they bought them. A bit tricky when buying e.g. at a highway rest station or at a small kiosk while on the go. With the refund being EUR 0.25 (ca. USD 0.35), German consumers were not ready to let the homeless do this job. And they couldn't. You needed the purchase receipt to the get the refund back.
    This let to an estimated EUR 450 million (USD 636 mio.) of refunds which were never refunded. Sales of canned drinks plummeted by EUR 1.2 billion (ca. USD 1.7 billion) and nearly 10,000 jobs were cut.

    To better the situation multiple refund pools where founded in late 2003. Their goal was to allow consumers to return their cans at participating stores across Germany - or was it to get a share of the un-refunded refunds? Brewers and soft drink companies had to pay into these pools, from which the refunds where balanced and paid back. In good old German fashion this was an administrative nightmare - for the companies and more so for the small stores.
    So they switched back to the traditional reusable bottles where possible. Breweries and mineral springs had a long-time and country-wide refund system and nearly 85% of sales is in reusable bottles.
    But soda companies only had a 25% share of reusable bottles, mostly sold in special beverage stores. For the smaller kiosks the clunky and space-consuming casings for the reusable bottles where simply not possible. Eventually companies like Coca-Cola set their bets on cheap one-way PET bottles.
    The can was dead.

    By 2006 the German one-way refund regulation was revised. Now only allow one single refund pool exists and consumers can return bottles wherever they are sold.
    Funny enough, soda cans still find their way into Germany from neighboring EU countries. In fact so many, that environmental organizations are again campaigning against them.