Our beer guy takes a shot at aluminum-loving craft brewers

PINTS by Jason Foster

To some folks, the rise of cans in the craft beer world might seem like a trend that’s grown slowly over the past while — but maybe I’ve just been out of the loop, because to me it seems their growing usage has suddenly gone from a trickle to a tidal wave.

However you view it, it’s clear that cans are all the rage in craft brewing right now.

In the past few weeks I’ve been talking to a bunch of new breweries that are soon to open on the Prairies (I profile all new breweries in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba on my website onbeer.org), and every single one told me they’re going to package their beer in cans.

It was the unanimity that got me. I’ve known for a few years that canned craft beer was a growing trend, especially in the U.S. But to see every new start-up on the Prairies opting for cans is something that makes you stand up and take notice.

And yet, I find myself oddly resistant.

For years, cans were associated with cheap, corporate pale lagers meant to be drunk cold and directly from the can, while craft beer was always put in bottles. The reasons for this were as much about economics as they were tradition. On the economic side of the equation, cans were cost-prohibitive for small breweries as canning lines were expensive and you had to purchase large quantities of cans per order.

The result: it was cans for the big bland boys and bottles for the craft-makers, and the division was clear and cemented in consumers’ minds.

But lately, the costs of canning have dropped significantly and a number of established craft breweries have added a canning line. The trend is more pronounced in the States, but Western Canadian examples include Yukon Brewing, Phillip’s Brewing and Central City — as well as newer Saskatchewan craft breweries like Swift Current’s excellent Black Bridge Brewing. Many of the established brewers make cans alongside bottles, creating more choice for their customers.

What seems to be changing is that cans are no longer perceived as a complement for bottles but as a replacement for them. This brings up a couple of questions.

The first, obviously, is why?

What the brewers are telling me is that the benefits of cans outweigh the negatives. They like how lightweight cans are and the fact that they’re impermeable to light (which is an enemy of beer) and besides, they feel that the majority of consumers prefer cans these days. Most of the old barriers to using cans — like expense — no longer really exist, and the “cheap beer” stigma attached to them seems to be fading fast.

All fair points, but that leads to the second question: is the rapid increase in can use a good thing for the beer world — and more importantly, the world in general?

Clearly, brewers that are shifting to cans — or using them exclusively right from the start of their operations — think that it’s a good move economically, and they obviously know more about their margins than I do. But as a consumer, there are at least a couple of ways to look at the situation and not all of them are positive.

On the upside, cans rate high on convenience: They’re light, they don’t break and you can take them to places bottles aren’t allowed. They’re also more compact than the industry-standard long-neck.

On the downside, some people say beer tastes different in cans, although that’s pretty hard to verify — especially since the beer doesn’t actually come into contact with aluminum (each can has a plastic liner). There may be concerns about leaching from the plastic, although no study has confirmed that. I’ve conducted many taste-tests over the years (shocking, I know) and I’ve found very slight differences in taste, but it’s impossible to say whether those small observations can be attributed to the package or to some other variable.

The much bigger concern is the question of environmental sustainability. An industry-standard bottle (the long-neck twist-off used by both the big boys and many craft breweries) is re-filled an average of 18 times, while cans are single-use containers that must then be melted down and turned into something new. Plus, recycling rates for cans are lower in Canada — about 80 per cent compared to 97 per cent for bottles.

Aluminum smelting also has a variety of negative environmental impacts, although the rate of recycling aluminum for the creation of new cans is climbing.

In cans’ favour: their light weight reduces carbon emissions during transportation.

A final issue is that cans, in my opinion, also encourage drinking straight from the container. I realize both bottles and cans fall prey to this serious abuse of beer, but cans are more drinker-friendly: They’re easier to grip, and their similarity with pop cans creates a familiarity with the practice.

So: I still have issues with cans overall, and especially the move towards craft beers in cans. On the other hand, the shift seems damn near unstoppable at this point, so we should probably all just suck it up and get used to it.

But I’m still pouring my beer into a glass, and you should too.