To most of us, the beer can conjures up images of light, fizzy swill being slammed down in copious amounts with aluminum cans strewn about the scene in various stages of impaction, often as the result of a direct blow from a boot stomp or a forehead smash.
This notion is largely the result of cultural perceptions shaped by Hollywood college party movies, of course, but there exists a real stigma among discerning beer drinkers (not an oxymoron, by the way) that canned beer is the sole jurisdiction of the lowest common denominator among us — it’s inferior quality, cheap and not to be taken seriously by any beer aficionado worth his salt. The can is to beer what the screw-top bottle is to wine.
At least, this used to be the case.
Believe it or not, food has been packaged in cans for more than 200 years now and beer since the mid-1930s. In those days, cans were manufactured from steel or tin-plated alloys, but aluminum has become the predominant material used in food packaging in the modern era. And, for those who wonder about the tin-can taste in canned beer, that phenomenon is largely as much a myth as the perceived inferiority of the can itself. Beverage can interiors are coated with a naturally-derived epoxy resin that creates a protective layer between the metal and the liquid inside. This resin coating technology is widely used in all manner of canned foods and has proven to be effective in completely eliminating the metallic taste associated with a canned product.
Beer cans, despite their long-held reputation, are in fact a superior package to glass for several significant reasons. They are impervious to light, for one, which is the single most detrimental factor to beer’s quality and the culprit for skunked beer. Beer becomes skunky as a result of photochemical reactions due to ultraviolet light exposure. Clear and green bottles don’t provide any protection from ultraviolet light, and amber-colored bottles provide only partial protection.
Cans also provide a completely air-tight seal against oxygen, which is another common beer killer. Oxidized beer
creates a papery or cardboard-like off-flavor and generally dulls the flavor and aroma of beer drastically. This is also why more and more well-respected winemakers throughout the world are moving to the use of screw-top bottles for high-end wines, rather than natural or synthetic corks. Screw tops prevent corked wine off-flavors and eliminate oxidation.
Finally, cans are imminently portable and safer than glass, and they are also more environmentally friendly because they are easier and quicker to recycle. Many recreational facilities and activities disallow glass on premises altogether. Cans however, accompany you to the beach, to an outdoor concert or on the hiking trail with ease and no fear of breakage — of the bottle or the rules.
We all know about the afore-mentioned light lager beer brands that are commonly associated with the can, but what might come as a surprise is that the American craft beer industry is embracing canning these days, as well. The Brewers Association noted back in 2010 that there were nearly 100 independently owned craft breweries in the United States using the can package for at least one of their beers, and that number has grown substantially since that time.
Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colo., was the trendsetter back in 2002 with Dale’s Pale Ale, and Colorado still boasts the most can-friendly breweries in the country. But, there are plenty of craft beer cans available right here in Southern Illinois, either canned regionally or available locally through distribution.
The Saint Louis Brewery, better known as Schlafly, cans its Helles-Style Summer Lager, and O’Fallon Brewery puts its peach-infused Wheach ale in a can during the summer, just in time for the Sunset Concert Series or a day on the lake. Sierra Nevada, out of Chico, Calif., cans both Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA for wide distribution. You can also find an array of craft cans locally from breweries, such as Abita, Big Sky, Kräftig, New Belgium and Ska, to name a few. Popular cider-makers, Woodchuck had even begun canning its popular Amber hard cider.
So, it might just be time to reconsider the can when it comes to craft beer. There’s no excuse for sticking with the cheap stuff for convenience-sake alone. The can is far craftier than we ever thought it would be.
SHAWN CONNELLY writes for Beer Connoisseur magazine and is a craft and specialty beer retail consultant and an award-winning home brewer. Read his blog at beerphilosopher.com.