05 Feb 2013 @ 10:46 PM 

Ah, the new classic debate of the craft era: Cans vs. Bottles and which one is better for your beer.

In this podcast we:

  • Get back on the podcasting wagon
  • Talk about how bottles and cans are filled
  • Talk about the benefits and detriments to cans and bottles and why some people prefer one or the other
  • Talk about the 3000, no.. 1000, no… 500.. err.. well.. probably 100 year headstart bottles have over cans in the marketing department

Glad to be back in the recording chair – I hope you’re still here with me. Cheers!

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Categories: history, industry, marketing, media, packaging, podcast
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 05 Feb 2013 @ 10 46 PM

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 13 Jun 2011 @ 11:13 AM 

You know, I’ve been struggling with this for a while. Do I like cans or don’t I? I keep hearing so much about how good cans are for craft beer, and from a theory standpoint I totally agree. There’s no light, there’s no oxygen egress – they’re basically just little kegs for your beer. How can you go wrong? At the same time, a significant number of the canned beers I’ve had have either been oxidized or unintentionally sour – and these from breweries that I have a great respect for outside of that can. If cans are so much better for craft, how can good breweries be making bad beer?

I’ve written about cans before and in general have felt very favorably about them, but time – and dumping more bought beer than I’d care to – has changed my thoughts on the matter. So now I present to you the reasons why I don’t like cans and why you probably won’t see a canning line in my brewery for a while.

1) I’m not convinced that craft canning lines have less oxygen. Not to say that some don’t – but a lot of craft canning lines are going to look a lot like this one:

Note: Nothing against Caldera Brewing Company – they probably make fine beer, I’ve never had it – but their canning line is an excellent example of what I’m skeptical about. And the video IS three years old, so maybe I’m just looking at old technology, but considering some people are using bottling lines that are older than I am I suspect that there’s not a ton of upgrades across the industry.

Here’s what I’m interested in – the point between 0:13 and 0:54 – between when the cans are being purged by CO2, filled, and the lid is applied. Let me describe in words what I’m seeing here. This line fills 5 cans at a time. As the cans move down the line, they are purged with CO2 – which is what those first 5 fillers are doing when they dip into the can. Purging with CO2 is basically just pushing a shot of carbon dioxide into the can on the theory that since CO2 is heavier than air, and that you’re pushing from the bottom, that CO2 will somehow completely displace the oxygen in the vessel. The cans are then moved down the line to the second set of fillers which fills the cans with beer, and does what is known as “fobbing.” FOB, by the way, stands for Foam on Beer. The theory on fobbing is that if there is foam over the top of the beer that you are somehow not allowing oxygen to contact the beer itself. (Never mind that oxygen is in contact with the foam which has a much larger surface area than the beer and that foam has had much of its CO2 released already removing much of whatever protective barrier that gas might create.) The fillers are removed from the cans and that foam is pulled back into the can whilst the filler drips beer through the open air back down into the can itself. Finally, a lid is kind of slapped on from a roller trapping in all that oxygeny goodness.

Sure, you may not get much oxygen into the can AFTER it’s sealed, but before it’s sealed you’re pretty much just slopping it in there, at least on this type of line. What’s more? Most craft breweries don’t pasteurize, which means that the shelf life on these beers is starting to get perilously low. If you get ’em cold and fresh? They’re probably awesome. But throw them in a warehouse, in the back of a hot truck bouncing down the road, and on an unrefrigerated end cap display in a grocery store somewhere, and I bet your shelf life is down to something like 2 weeks before you start getting stale or sour flavors in there.

Necessary caveats: I know not every canning line is like this, and I know the process is going to differ brewery to brewery and that’s going to make a hell of a difference. I’m using this as my “probably industry average” example. Why? Because canning lines are expensive and sometimes you buy the less expensive equipment so that you can get something in place faster. Sometimes you get the less ideal equipment because you’re getting a deal on it. Because nobody’s going to buy the top shelf option every time. Because I know that for every person in the industry that is fanatical about making sure that everything is perfect, there is another person out there in the industry who is kinda lazy about the way they’re getting part of their process done. After all, this is all somebody’s job. When was the last time that you went through your work day and never cut a corner on anything? Sometimes, all you want to do is go home at 4:30 so that you can get to the beach, or pick your kids up from school, or whatever, and a little extra oxygen pickup be damned.

Final word – there’s probably a good case to say that once beer is in the can it’s a great packaging material, but process and equipment are too inconsistent at a craft level for me to believe that it is true in every case.

2) Cans lack elegance. This is a small re-hash of one of the articles that I’ve written previously about cans. No matter how pretty your art is, when somebody is out on a romantic date at a nice restaurant, they’re not going to be getting canned beer. They’re probably not even going to see an option for it, because I suspect most nice restaurants – the places that really should be about getting good beer to go with good food – will most likely not buy cans unless they’re there for a novelty. I think it’s a long way in the future before a can sits next to a wine bottle at a white-linen type restaurant.

Cans are good for the beach. They’re good for public parks. They’re good for hiking. Otherwise, they’re no different than bottles. Are those three markets really going to take a brewery to the next level? I have my doubts.

3) Cans are BMC territory, and they can out-can us. Like it or not, craft beer as a market segment poses more and more of a threat to the likes of ABI and MillerCoors, and if there’s something I know about those guys, they’ve got cans down pat. They don’t have extra oxygen pickup in their cans – you know why? Because they can in an oxygenless environment, because they can afford one. As craft becomes more of a threat to the big guys, it becomes more and more likely that they’re going to enter a craft-like offering into the market. The more we emulate them in our packaging options, the more options we give them to be able to take market share back from us.

Doubt me? Consider that Blue Moon as a single brand outsells most of the craft breweries in the country. You can get Blue Moon in a can, now, too.

4) I am turned off by blind faith and hype. In high school I used to get in trouble for not taking whatever my teachers told me as fact. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was going through entrepreneur training.

I cannot wrap my head around blindly believing what people tell me without seeing evidence for it myself (especially if those people are trying to sell me something) – and I say this as a person who is fairly trusting in nature. What’s even worse is when I see large groups of people automatically believing something that I see as probably a sales pitch – that’s when my knee-jerk reaction to disagree sets in, and that’s where I am with cans.

I have not, thus far, been presented with data that suggests that cans are nearly as awesome for craft beer as I see publicized, primarily because – as I stated earlier – process and equipment are too inconsistent right now. So why does that put me in the “no cans” camp? Because from the outside of the package, I can’t tell what’s inside. That means I won’t touch any of them. I have had too many cans from breweries that I trust – and you trust – that have been obviously spoiled in a way that I think they would consider unacceptable.

My trust for the can marketplace has been broken, and it will take some serious science to bring me back around.

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Categories: distribution, industry, op-ed
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 13 Jun 2011 @ 11 18 AM

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 30 Jun 2010 @ 6:45 PM 

I’m always a little amazed by the bizarre cultural dichotomy that beer finds itself in.

It seems almost insane to me that the image on the left (one of the least salubrious Beer Magazine covers) could somehow influence the image on the right.

On one hand, beer is the domain of the 1970’s frat boy culture. Girls in bikinis, kegs, hot dogs, and alcohol abuse. What could be more American? Beer is also undeniably blue collar. At the end of a long shift at the factory, you can imagine a group of guys heading to their local to throw back a pint or two, but you can’t really imagine them sipping a Fuzzy Navel or a glass of Merlot.

On the other hand, beer is swiftly joining wine in the high-end marketplace. It is being recognized for its strengths in food pairing and you are increasingly likely to see someone drinking a goblet of great beer at a fancy restaurant. It’s not just wine and cocktails anymore.

I think about this a lot whenever somebody brings up craft beer in cans.

I recognize that cans are a good delivery vehicle for beers. They are little kegs. They don’t let light in and have the opportunity, when filling, for a totally oxygen-free experience. They are lighter, less expensive, and have a smaller impact on the environment. They are a brilliant packaging option.

But! Cans have the cultural cache of beach, ballpark, and BBQ. Macros dominate the can market and when you think about beer in a can, you pretty much can’t avoid thinking about Bud Light… or.. maybe warm Schlitz. It’s not a reflection of the quality of the beer in the can, it’s a fact that over the past 100 years what’s been in a can has been industrial light lager. It’s like how when you hear the word “forty” in relation to a drink your brain automatically goes here.

I guess I wonder when we’re likely to see this:

Craft beer geeks? We understand that great beer comes in a can, but we’re a small, small part of the market, and even then I don’t usually think of canned beer as beer dinner material. I think of it as “drunk” material.

I see the craft market going to two directions right now. I see it shooting for accessibility. I see it broadening its audience in the long search for market share and perhaps making some sacrifices in image as it goes. I also see it going down the fancy-pants-and-dinner-jacket road in an effort to be taken seriously in the culinary world. I see big, elegant bottles with fancy labels being served at cheese pairings, but that way lies inaccessibility and a battle across the long inlaid roads of wine.

So it all makes me wonder: Can craft go in both of these directions at once? Or will we inevitably see a market segment split where part of the market seeps back toward appealing to the lowest common denominator while still making big-flavored beer and part of the market takes its cicerone to go stand next to the sommelier?

They may not make significantly different products right now. After all, the market is young and while our brewing imagination runs wild, it does so within parameters that are only just starting to expand. Twenty or thirty years down the road when these cultural differences are more stark, will we have two craft markets instead of one? Or will cans find a place at the dinner table?

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 30 Jun 2010 @ 06 45 PM

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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.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 06 Jul 2009 @ 11 43 AM

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