On a Monday morning last March, I was standing in front of the cooler at Hannaford while four employees energetically hauled most of the bottled beer into shopping carts and replaced it with cans. Curious, and more than a little horrified, I asked one of the workers why they were switching the bottles for cans, and in a low, I-just-work-here tone, he told me, “It’s the breweries, they’re making everything in cans.”
I stood there in shocked silence, and when I didn’t respond, he added, “I prefer bottles, myself.”
There is a coup taking place in the beer industry. Call it the tin-pot dictatorship of the can. The two obvious reasons why this is happening are that cans are cheaper to manufacture and transport, and canning machinery is more mobile and affordable these days. Cans were a critical cost-saving option when the mega-brewers took over the American market in the 1950s. But why have craft brewers, a group that purports to value quality over quantity, followed in this direction?
Until recently, canned beer was stigmatized as cheap and bad. I suspect some craft brewers employed the hipster reasoning by which low-class tropes become cool (see the otherwise unexplainable resurgence of Pabst Blue Ribbon and its ilk).
The beer-can boosterism of Sierra Nevada, one of America’s oldest craft brewers, is typical of the propaganda I found online. Like others in the can camp, they crow about the environmental benefits — being lighter and more easily stackable, it takes less energy, and fewer trips, to transport cans — but they ignore what happens at the source: aluminum production causes far more environmental damage than making glass; compare bauxite mining to the mining of silica. Of course, it’s also cheaper for companies like Sierra Nevada to ship cans than bottles, but they don’t mention that, either.
Any discussion of cans has to address the existence of BPA, a synthetic chemical that can mimic estrogen, in their epoxy lining. Mainers will recall that when former Gov. Paul LePage, in one of his first acts in office, moved to eliminate a ban on the use of BPA in baby bottles, he tried to reassure the public that the “worst case” scenario would be “some women may have little beards.” Actually, infants are most at risk from the chemical’s biological effects; adults, much less so. But I side with health watchdogs who caution that it’s most prudent to proceed as if the chemical is potentially harmful and avoid BPA whenever possible.
A video I found on YouTube shows an aluminum can dissolving in sodium hydroxide (commonly known as lye), revealing its inner plastic coating. I replicated this experiment at home with an empty can of Baxter Brewing Co.’s Ein Stein lager that I had on hand. The result vividly demonstrates that what we think of as beer in a can is actually beer in a plastic bag wrapped in aluminum.
I do give credit to the few Maine craft breweries that are sticking with bottles. Namely Maine Beer Company (motto: “Do what’s right.”), in Freeport, which solely distributes in bottles — 500ml bottles, no less! In a recent podcast interview, co-founder and brewer Dan Kleban said Maine Beer Co. is sticking with bottles, in part because that’s become part of the company’s brand identity, but when asked if the economics of the industry dictated a move to cans in the future, he left that door open.
Trying to win me over to cans, a friend once said, “Well, you can just pour it into a glass.” But that’s exactly my point: with a bottle, you don’t have to do that!
The can vs. bottle debate is ultimately a matter of personal preference, but that’s a choice we are increasingly being denied.
When I’m holding a cold bottle of beer, I don’t have to worry that the heat from my hand will warm its contents, as happens noticeably faster with cans. And when I raise the bottle to my lips, there’s a beautiful, almost seductive pairing of rounded contours. By contrast, a sip from a can is like a slobbery kiss from a drunken robot. Back off, Bender!