Suds with Sophie: Bottles Versus Cans

by Sophie Nelson

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Now that takeaway beer is the only beer, it’s a great time to discuss packaging: bottles versus cans. There’s a lot of history with both of these forms of packaging that influences how they’re perceived. Bottles are an extremely early form of containing beer (think clay formed bottles). Cans are more often associated with cheap beer and the brandless beer of the 1980s. Many craft breweries, however, have switched their bottled inventory to cans, which raises the question: Why? 

Let’s start with the classic vessel, the bottle. Bottles are a great way to showcase the appearance of a beer, giving you a little idea about the general taste you can expect without having to know complicated information about the style or malt use. This little window, however, has some issues in that it allows light to enter the beer, causing it to be “lightstruck.” 

You may not be familiar with that term, but you most definitely know what I mean when I say the beer is “skunked.” If you’re lucky enough to not know what I’m talking about, here’s the thing: Such a beer really does – on a small level – taste like the smell of a skunk. This flavor is the result of light entering a beer and causing a reaction with the hop chemicals.

All beer, but especially light and hoppy beer, is susceptible to skunking. Clear and green bottles offer 0 percent and 20 percent protection, respectively; and brown is better, at 80 percent. Miller – which frequently uses clear bottles in its packaging – found a way around this issue by using Tetra Hop, an extract that provides the right hop flavors but is made in a lab instead of out in nature. 

Bottles are also susceptible to oxidation at the connection between the glass and the cap. Oxidation can be a little more difficult to detect if you’re not looking for it, but if you’ve ever taken a sip of beer and, after swallowing, noticed a dry, papery, cardboard taste, that is oxidation. This is a reason many breweries have switched their caps from twist-off to pry-off. 

There have also been improvements in the material used to seal bottle caps, which makes it less permeable and gives a little more protection against the effects of aging. The only exception to this bottle-cap-oxidation issue is bottle-conditioned beer. This variety is bottled with a little yeast, which eats up all the oxygen in the package. To me, this is the only time when a beer is better in a bottle than a can. 

Cans don’t have the same problems as bottles. Light cannot permeate an aluminum can, and the seal between the lid and the can is made by machinery that does not allow oxygen into the beer. 

One interesting comparison that you can try at home is to purchase the same beer – one in a can, one in a bottle – and see whether you taste a difference. I tried this with Pilsner Urquell. This is the original Czech pilsner, meaning it’s light and imported. I don’t want to give too much away, but the difference was staggering. 

Other benefits of cans include being lightweight, which makes for more efficient shipping and transportation; less breakable; and quicker chilling. 

The perception of the can may be the biggest issue working against it today because it was the vessel of the cheap, brandless, tasteless beer of the past. Or worse, there’s the thought that cans give a metallic, aluminum taste to the beer. Although this might be a little true if you’re drinking straight from the can (which is a big beer-snob no-no), there’s actually a very effective epoxy coating that prevents these metallic flavors from getting into your beer. There is also concern about the presence of BPA from this epoxy leaching into beer, but at the moment, there are no scientific claims to support this being the case.

So for now, support your local breweries, stock up on craft beer and decide for yourself which packaging option is your favorite.

The idea for this week’s article came from my beer friends Mary and David Bell. If you have an article idea or any questions, shoot me an email!