06 Jul 2009 @ 11:43 AM 

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.

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

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