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Why Are So Many Craft Breweries Selling Their Beer in Cans?

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The liquor store close by our house has something they call the “beer cave.” It’s an entire refrigerated room dedicated to housing their selection of craft beers. In this cave, over the course of the last handful of years, there has been a marked shift. Walls and shelves of amber bottles have given way to rows of boldly colored aluminum cans. Perhaps you’ve noticed it, too. The number of craft beers in cans has approximately doubled since 2012. And, according to the Brewer’s Association, while about 2% of craft beer was canned in 2011, 2014 data indicated now more than 10% of craft beer is canned.

This means that, while bottles are still more common, cans are making serious headway. So, I wondered, what was behind the shift towards cans? Luckily, I had someone in the know who I could ask: Some of my good friends own a mid-sized craft brewery here in Minnesota, called Bent Paddle, and when they launched three years ago they chose to can their beer right from the start.

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The almighty beer cave.
The almighty beer cave. Photo by Emily Virkre

The answer, it turns out, is remarkably straightforward. My friends at Bent Paddle, the Craft Brewer’s Association, and the “about us” webpage of Oskar Blues—credited with being the first craft brewery to use cans—all say precisely the same thing. Like, exactly the same thing. As in, if this were college it would be an honor code violation. Which made me wonder if there was some kind of conspiracy or brainwashing involved. It turns out, though, craft breweries that adopt cans are swayed by a distinct set of advantages cans have over bottles. Here they are:

Quality

The quality of beer can be affected by several things, including exposure to light and to air. Cans are more airtight and block out all light. This reduces the risk of degradation and makes the beer more stable, which is especially important to craft beers since most are not pasteurized.

Sustainability

While glass is recyclable, aluminum cans are even more so. In fact, they are pretty damn close to 100% recyclable. As more of us in manufacturing businesses think more deeply about what our environmental impact is, things like recyclability are compelling factors. A recycled beer can can be back on the shelves within 60 days! Because cans are lighter, they’re also more efficient to ship, which is better for the environment and for breweries’ bottom lines.

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Photo by Emily Vikre

Feasibility

There have been innovations in both cans themselves and canning lines that have allowed for greater adoption by smaller breweries. Cans now have linings that prevent the beer from picking up a tinny taste. And, canning lines cost a lot less than they did just a few years ago, so more small and medium-sized breweries can afford them.

Bring-with-a-bility

As my friend at Bent Paddle explained, “We always say at Bent Paddle that we like to bring our beer where we like to play—and often times bottles are not the ideal companion.” As canoers, hikers, golf players, and beach goers have decided they want to bring their beer with them for their activities, cans are the more portable option.

Photo by Emily Virkre

These things are all likely true. Or, at the very least, if they’re continually repeated they will become true, just as common usage can change the definition of a word in the Oxford English Dictionary, or make incorrect grammar correct.

But, let me tell you what else I think: Cans are coming back into vogue because, in about 2008, hipsters decided they liked PBR. It was outside of the mainstream and retro. And it came in cans. That cool, metallic feeling on your lips reminds you of college, of the 1980s, and of an imaginary past when brands were more authentic. Looking outside of the mainstream, Oskar Blue (which, by the way, with great prescience had been canning since 2002, but the brand’s growth began to skyrocket in 2009), was the perfect combination of the PBR-ish look with craft beer taste. Cans became more good. And not just good, but desirable, as people began to give real consideration to claims of cans' potential superiority.

Our perceptions shift the market and the market shifts our perceptions, and with these powers combined, cans will probably continue to see growth. Plus, you can crush a can on your forehead. Can’t do that with a glass bottle.

Fiveandspice, a.k.a. Emily Vikre, is a writer, self-described "food policy wonk," and co-founder of Vikre Distillery. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota. You can read more of her writing here.

Do you prefer beer in cans or bottles? Let us know in the comments below!