You've probably noticed some major changes in the beer aisle lately. It's not just the types of beer available, or the crazy number of breweries represented, or the fact that there are bros intermingling with beer snobs. It's the cans. So. Many. Cans.
Cans' resurgence in popularity with beer (and even wine) has once again sparked the unending debate: are cans better than bottles? How can you even figure that out? With science, of course. And expert opinions from brewers and other smart people. We consulted both to find out, tapping deep into our can-do (HA!) attitudes to unbottle (HA! HA!) the truth behind the great beer-packaging debate. Now, it's cans vs. bottles in a no-holds-barred, round-for-round battle royale. Let's rumble.
Protection of beer
The most widespread argument for cans is that they're made for protecting the booze inside. Beer's biggest enemies are light, oxygen, and heat, which combine for a one-way ticket to Skunk City. The good news for bottles is that amber glass blocks around 99% of the wavelengths of light that will damage your brew, and recent packaging modifications that cover beer for most of its moving life don't necessarily make this round an instant KO for aluminum… though cans trounce green, blue, and clear bottles when it comes to keeping the light out.
Where cans deliver the true haymaker is in their power over exposure to air. The very crux of their design is that aluminum cans form a perfect, airtight seal with none of the headspace that bottled beer has to contend with. If the end goal is to make sure the beer in your hand tastes as fresh as possible from oxidation, cans have the leg up.
Weight and portability
Let's take a look at some numbers, shall we?
Approximate weight of a six-pack of 12oz canned beer: 5lbs
Approximate weight of a six-pack of 12oz bottled beer: 7.5lbs
The difference seems almost negligible in the store, but just wait 'til you're two miles into your hike with a six-pack of longnecks in your backpack, or lugging a case of bottles to your friend's BBQ. Ten extra pounds of bottles makes a huge difference.
Add in the fragile nature of the glass bottle versus the sturdiness of aluminum cans and it almost makes planning picnic beverages a no-brainer. On the retail side, concert venues and sporting arenas love that they can dispense full beers without dangerous shards of broken glass injuring customers. And any bar or bottle shop manager will tell you they love how much easier cans are to stack and store, and how much less of an issue breakage is.
The one isn't all that close. Cans weigh as much as 10lbs less per case, which seriously cuts down on shipping fuel use. They’re also smaller in physical size, so many more can be shipped at once. And the recycling process makes cans easier to deal with in many areas (which is why close to 70% of all cans are recycled). This is a slam dunk of Captain Planet proportions for cans.
Traditional brewing techniques
Just because cans are fantastic for keeping crisp IPAs fresh doesn't mean they're the answer to every brewer's problems. "There are many reasons one would clearly choose [bottles over cans]," says Anthony Accardi, co-founder and brewer at New York City's Transmitter Brewing. "Some are purely technical, others are aesthetic. We use the Belgian and French tradition of styles as a stepping-off point. Our corked and caged bottle conditioning is a nod to that."
Transmitter's approach to making beer is just one example of a technological limitation to canning. "Cans generally can't be filled with the volume of CO2 that we shoot for in the bottles, so a compromise would have to take place," Accardi says.
This would also be the case for many of the bottle-fermented Belgian styles that require the addition of yeast and sugar right into the bottle, where the beer undergoes a second fermentation. "Right now we do a lot of large-format 750ml bottles that undergo re-fermentation in the bottle," says Matt Katase, co-founder and brewer at the Brew Gentlemen in Braddock, PA. "That can't happen in a can. I've even seen some pictures of cans exploding."
Winner (at least for traditional styles): Bottles
These days, it seems like every other beer fan is calling their shed a "cellar" and aging their beers like wines. But there are issues. "Not all beers are meant to be cellared, [but] many will continue to develop in good and interesting ways over time," says Accardi. "You don't hear a lot about people cellaring cans or see people pulling out two- or three-year-old cans to celebrate and share."
This round is more difficult to judge for a few reasons, the first being that the types of beer that would most likely be aged rarely overlap with the types of beer that are canned. And given the lack of headspace in cans that we mentioned before, it may just be that beer in cans will just age differently than bottled beer will. Until more time has passed and industry habits have changed enough to meaningfully research this, cellaring ability is technically a toss-up.
Winner: Too early to call… for now, it's a draw
Like writing a letter by hand or showering (at least) once a day, it's hard to deny that bottles can make us feel all fancy thanks to sheer tradition. "There's something sexy and festive about popping a cork. It takes a moment to get the cage off and pull the cork out," Accardi says, referring to more sought-after beers that forego the twist-off for something fancier. "There’s a beautiful and anticipatory sound of the pop… I think even if someone has done it 1,000 times it's still fun and surprising."
Beside the ritual of opening a cork, there's also the togetherness that comes with bringing a bottle to dinner: "We [also] love the idea that the 750ml bottle is meant to be shared while a can is usually a solo endeavor," Accardi admits. After all, sharing the love is always great, but it's particularly great when it comes in the form of incredible beer.
Winner: *pops cork* Bottles
And the winner is... CANS!
There are several points we didn't address that could have thrown this decision into another direction. What if you're at home casually drinking a beer when you're suddenly confronted by your nemesis? Obviously you would want the security of a smashed bottle to defend yourself instead of a can! What if you're looking for a makeshift musical instrument? Cans can make decent maracas, while bottles are better as glass pan flutes… so that's kind of a draw.
The truth is, the majority of everyday beer is best housed in a can. As the brewer's "mini-keg," it keeps beer tasting as it was intended to for longer, with all of the added environmental and practical benefits. If you're still angry about this call, it most likely means that you didn't actually read the middle part of this article… but don't bottle up those feelings (HA!). The best way to figure this out once and for all is to go out and taste-test it yourself. Who knows? Anything can happen. [Author’s Note: We have officially exceeded our pun allotment tenfold. We apologize.]
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.