06 Jul 2009 @ 11:43 AM 
 

What does your great beer come in? The packaging dilemma.

 

When you go to the store and buy a great beer, how much does packaging play a role in what you buy?

Like every intelligent person, I tell myself: Not a lot. I can look past any preconceived notions I might have about packaging and buy it for the beer inside.

Okay. So then, without knowing brands, which of these would you rather spend a decent amount on – say $15:

Labels Intentionall Obscured

I obscured the labels there to try to get you to not make a decision based on brand, but it’s hard to hide packaging details. I don’t know about you, but for the most part, I choose the bottle.

I know that cans are better for beer, I know that cans are better for the environment. I am attracted to bottles. They’re opulent. When I look at my little “beer cellar” where I’m keeping and aging beers, the bottles look cool. I’ve got a sixer of Dale’s Pale Ale around in the same spot and while I know the beer is great, it just doesn’t look as classy. They look like cans.

So let’s talk about this.

Bottles are the traditional packaging option, and we all know about them by this point in history, so let’s not really get into a long list of the pros and cons. Consider, though, that different types of bottles make different impressions. Big corked bombers with wire cages look rich, and who hasn’t ever looked at a pack of Coronitas and thought to themselves: “Man, the beer isn’t that great but those bottles are REALLY cute!” Flying Dog recently released a line of their big beers in 8 oz. bottles which, in my mind, might be the perfect size for a packaged barleywine. Bottles; let’s call them the standard to beat.
Beer Can
Yes, cans are better for beer – they’re like little kegs. People like to talk about how beer out of a can tastes tinny, but you never hear them say that about kegs, and yet kegs are just large cans. They keep light out, they can dramatically reduce oxygenation, they’re easier to recycle, they shatter a whole lot less, and they’re allowed in more public venues than bottles. However, they have this huge social stigma associated with them, thanks to BMC.

When cans were first introduced to the market they were popular and revolutionary! They’re easier to make, easier to store, they don’t break! So what happened? Well, the beer started getting crappy, didn’t it? It’s not the can’s fault, but what do most consumers think of when they think of canned beer? A 30-pack of Bud Light, not a Bourbon-barrel-aged Double IPA. Getting people past that hump is going to be a big one. Articles like this one in the Washington Post will probably help. It also helps that New Belgium – a company that is known for setting environmental standards – now has Fat Tire in cans, but it’s going to take more before it becomes a standard for craft beer, especially really specialty ones.

Incidentally, the “tinny” argument is imaginary. You know when the lining that stops beer from reacting with metal cans was invented? 1933. Seriously. There is no tinny taste. It’s all in your mind.

The pouches that I included in the picture up there appear to be new on the market. They starting popping up on blogs around the internet in the beginning of June, but I haven’t really seen much chatter about them. (You’ll see that even that link is titled: “Beer in a pouch doesn’t add metallic tastes, easy to fill.” – See? The metallic taste thing is ever-present.) There appear to be two companies pushing them: The Beverage Pouch Group and a place called InCan. The latter is based in Alaska and is focused pretty intently on backpackers, which is about the only place that I can personally see this product going. As far as I’m concerned, the major drawback to these is that if you’re not camping, these look like a big ol’ pain in the ass to keep in your fridge. Not stackable and they need their 6-pack case. Not efficient. Cool looking? Without a doubt. But will it beat out my bottle scenario up top? I don’t think so. They look like novelty items.

The last option, and one that isn’t discussed much, is plastic. I ran into a bunch at the Craft Brewers Conference this year. The plastic that is used to make soda bottles – PET- (Polyethylene terephthalate) is available in normal brown 12 oz. beer bottle form. From far away – I’m not sure you’d know the difference – at close range, there’s definitely something different about it. Once you pick it up, you know. These have about the same pros and cons as cans – except that they, of course, allow light in. The carbon footprint of manufacturing a PET bottle is significantly smaller than a glass bottle and very similar to manufacturing a can. But does it feel cheap and look cheap? Yes. Can I get by that as a consumer? Sure. But the beer has to be great.

For me, it’s a personal dilemma. As a consumer, I am attracted to glass packaging. As a future brewmaster, I’m attracted to cans. As a future business owner, I’ll probably tend toward cans, because I know it’s better for the bottom line of my business, but I spend a lot of time wishing that I could make big fancy corked ones.

What about you? Are you a brewer? Are you a beer geek? What’s your preference?

Postscript: Cans are a really interesting piece of the beer industry’s history, as well as the history of America. I found An Illustrated History of the American Beer Can while researching this post. It’s really pretty fantastic. Check it out.

Tags Tags: , , ,
Categories: brewery, distribution, industry
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 06 Jul 2009 @ 11 43 AM

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Responses to this post » (10 Total)

 
  1. sean says:

    I’m totally a sucker for glass, but I recently tried Butternuts Heinneweisse in a can at a local bar and it was really good!
    I still will bottle my beer at home, but I’m slowly starting to give cans a chance.

  2. Always ASS-umed the can thing was true. Hmmm. Still, any beer I normally consider buying is only available in bottles, so for me to change my mind I’d have to buy some macro stuff in a can, which ,well isn’t something I’d like to do.

    I’m interested in your decision to go with cans for your own beer someday. Do you think it will be as readily accepted on the market as bottled beer would? You’re talking about a massive re-education program regarding the merits of canned beer.

    Great post – got me thinking!

  3. erik says:

    No – I don’t think it will be readily accepted. I think it’ll be an uphill battle, but ultimately it’s a good decision for a business and it’s a good decision for the product.

    Some other great companies are already fighting the good fight for me in advance. Oskar Blues (of course), Fat Tire, and 21st Amendment are canning their beers for nationwide distribution.

    What I’m really watching is Fullsteam, a local (to me) startup. Their portfolio of beers looks more similar to mine than does, say, Fat Tire or Oskar Blues. I’m interested to see how it’s received and how they do with it as a startup.

  4. chandra says:

    I’m coming at this post from a packaging geek perspective, not a brewer or a beer geek. My understanding is that glass is the best packaging, as it is 100% recyclable throughout it’s entire life, and does not require the additional materials that aluminum does when being melted down and reformed. PET is great, and Coca Cola has actually done a huge push in the recyclablity of it, but there is still the lid. There is a lot going on right now with biopolymers, and while these look like a good alternative, I’m concerned with the redistribution of the corn supplies.

    So I would choose the glass bottle.

  5. Brian says:

    At least ten years ago when I was reading the right trade magazines, there was some question about greater gas permeability in the polymer bottles, which would certainly have *some* effect (whatever it might be) on the taste. At the time, they had been test-marketed such containers in places like Australian beaches, where the shelf life was very low and the turnover exceptionally high. I haven’t kept up on the industry since then to know if they ever addressed that problem or if it turned out to even be a problem.

  6. erik says:

    From my reading prior to making this post, gas permeability was one of the things that I looked up for PET bottles, and I couldn’t find anything that directly addressed it except for the fact that PET bottles can hold a raging shitton (that’s an engineering term) of pressure.

    For how long (ie – can you age in beer in PET?) I’m not sure.

  7. Robert Larsen says:

    Early adapters are often surrounded by naysayers, but I have seen the light on these pouches. I think you highly underestimate how really well they protect beer. The Ale we had from GreatBear in these beerpouches was as fresh and good as if it came right out of the bright tank. Aseptic packaging and pouches like these are being used throughout the retail world now on everything from tunafish to motor oil, and there are good reasons for it. When bag in a box wine came out, all manner of snobbery took place, but look at them now. The world is not flat!, and neither is the beer in these beerpouches. People have come to realize that these types of beerpouches just plain hold products better than bottles or cans. We need not discuss that pouches are considerably GREENER, using less energy to produce than either a bottle or can, and that the REDUCTION in land fill mass is a huge advantage over either. Breakability and weight never exactly thrilled me as a home brewer, and I think if you take another look at these beerpouches, you will see the future of beer packaging…well if you like your beer to taste FRESH I mean…With no oxygen in the pouch it seems like the beer just stays tasting better. Speculate all you want, but take it from someone who has enjoyed fresh beer from these pouches, they are on to something.

  8. erik says:

    To be really fair, I think there’s still a fair amount of snobbery surrounding box wine. I’m not sure that there are a lot of really good vintages available in a box or a bag.

    I’m not sure you’ve convinced me that a pouch surpasses a can environmentally. What makes these pouches greener than cans? Do they somehow have a lower carbon footprint than normal PET manufacturing?

    What about recyclability? I don’t want to put any of this stuff into a landfill. I want to crush and re-use it or re-fill it.

    Lack of oxygen, weight, breakability, etc – those arguments all work in favor of cans.

    Do you work for a pouch manufacturer by any chance?

  9. Robert Larsen says:

    I like this post. Thanks for your perspective.

    To answer your question, I am not a packager, but I have a basic understanding of chemistry, and consider myself a pretty serious brewer. I think my main advantage in this thread is that I live in Alaska and have actually had these!

    With all due respect, I think you still underestimate the QUALITY of packaging that a pouch provides to it’s contents over bottles or cans.

    Aesthetics are not so important to my tongue, it wants FLAVOR. I am talking on a molecular preservation and protection level here. Have you ever had tuna fish from a pouch vs. a can? Once you do, you will never go back. That is just ONE example. Walk through a grocery store and you can hardly count the number of products that have gone to pouches from cans or bottles. Ever ask yourself WHY?

    Look at the neck of your bottle. Airspace exists in a bottle, airspace exists in a can.

    No airspace is in a pouch, and when you don’t have airspace, guess what? You don’t have air, and so you don’t have OXYGEN. Seems simple enough to me. This is the big hook about pouch packaging and it makes good sense. Oxygen is bad for most packaged products but if you didn’t already know, OXYGEN KILLS BEER!

    I can TASTE the difference. You do understand that they THROW BEER AWAY in both bottles and cans after the FRESHNESS DATE is past right? Most of the time, that’s just a few months after packaging.

    Well, in aseptic pouch packaging, your shelf life is dramatically increased. As I read the websites, brewers can look to producing vintage ales, just like wineries with these pouches. This is a BIG benefit.

    If I can avoid oxygen in my brewing, I will. But using bottles has not exactly been great to my ales. Oh, commercial breweries do all manner of things to TRY and evacuate it, but you always end up with some O2 in the mix.

    We thought these pouches were weird too….at first. All I am saying is that before you can take a position on the merits of putting beer in a pouch, you should TRY it first.

    I have tried it, and it’s awesome. Looks different, seems different, but the proof is found in what is poured. Don’t you agree?

    I know they are re useable, but don’t know if pouches are recyclable. However, I have worked in retail before, and I do know that pouches are widely held as the greenest form of retail packaging available, and customers seem to like that. The WORST of course is your aluminum cans. Have you ever SEEN what it takes to get raw aluminum?

    It is not ALWAYS about recycling by the way, there is also the issue of waste mass REDUCTION. When you consider the sheer weight of bottles vs. these pouches, you can see the obvious benefits, not to mention how much energy is used in comparison. Shipping, breakage, space savings, they are all considerations that effect the value comparison from a green perspective.

    Still on the fence? Pull out your wallet.

    Maybe you have noticed, the cost of good beer is rising. The cost of a pouch is a fraction of the cost of a bottle. A glass growler can cost you over 4 bucks, while a beerpouch of the same size can be half that cost or even less.

    I remember when they first started doing this, and have seen several different versions over the years. Now the Alaska guys have a screw cap version just like a bottle!

    Your article was very interesting to me, but the dog of your argument just won’t hunt. You basically say…”well I dont know about them…and I dont know if they are stackable (the new ones are) and based on that, they are new, and look cool, but I think they must only be for campers and can’t be as good as other packaging”.

    I say with all due respect…with these beerpouches, you are looking at the quality beer package of the future. These pouches are like a vault for beer flavor in comparison to other packages. Hundreds of other examples appear on the shelves today, why NOT beer?

    Embrace flavor! Embrace shelf life! You can pour a pouch of beer into a bottle when you want to serve it if it makes you feel any better.

    Enjoyed your article! The next time you are in Alaska, lets go have some pouched beer! CHEERS!

  10. […] written about cans before and in general have felt very favorably about them, but time – and dumping more […]

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