If you've been buying beer for the past couple of years, you've probably noticed a trend: cans. And lots of them. They used to be reserved for cheap six packs with names that ended in "light," but over the past several years, American craft beer has taken a liking to the aluminum containers to supplement – or even altogether replace – bottled offerings.
From 2011 to 2014, cans went from being roughly 2% of craft beer's overall volume to 10%. Sure, that's still small relative to draft and bottles, but a jump that big is significant, and points to cans taking up more and more real estate on beer store shelves in the future.
It's a little less traditional, sure, and you lose out on the satisfying weight and presentation factor of a bottle. But cans have all kinds of advantages over their glass counterparts, like:
A Better Seal
Beer is sensitive to both light and oxygen. Glass, even when it's dark brown, isn't perfect at protecting beer from either – beer can easily be skunked if exposed to too much sunlight, and if the cap of a bottle isn't perfectly sealed, oxygen can seep in and wreck the flavor.
Cans, on the other hand, are impenetrable on this front. That's good for any kind of beer, but is especially helpful for IPAs – they're extra sensitive to freshness concerns, because hop flavor can fade away quickly if the liquid is hit by extra oxygen or light. So all else being equal, a canned beer will be a better representation of a brewer's intention than its bottled counterpart.
Usually, the difference is minor if at all existent – unless a six-pack has been on a beer store shelf for months, or been left out in the sun for days, it's not a big deal. But if you're buying something especially hoppy or just want a better guarantee of freshness, cans are the way to go.
Bottles are heavy and fragile, which isn't exactly ideal when you want to pack a cooler. For any kind of on-the-go occasion – golfing, hiking, tailgating, boating, picnicking – cans are a safer, easier bet. Your pack will be lighter, you don't have to worry about glasses breaking, and they're easy to recycle once empty.
That lighter weight also plays a big part in brewery and beer store logistics, too. An aluminum can is a whole lot lighter than a glass bottle, which reduces shipping costs and the carbon footprint of getting beer from point A to point B.
Ok, so this one is subjective. But there's something eye-catching about cans, especially the taller 16 oz ones, with labels that are able to wrap all the way up and around the outside.
That's not to say bottles don't look good – there are plenty of breweries with beautiful label art on bottles of all shapes and sizes. And there's definitely something to be said for handsome 750 ml bottles of extra special batches of beer. But for your standard six-pack, designs are on fuller display with a can, giving them just a little more visual appeal and allowing for more intricate artwork.
Aside from those, there's a more nebulous sense in the craft beer world that cans are the coolest way to package a brew, especially when it's an IPA.
The origins are hazy, but The Alchemist's Heady Topper, a world-renowned double IPA with a cult following, likely contributed to the trend beginning in the mid-2000s. These days, tons of hyped-up hoppy beer from the trendiest breweries – Tree House, Surly, Fiddlehead, Bissel Brothers, Creature Comforts, Grimm, Pipeworks – show how strongly the rest of the craft beer world has followed suit. Even Stone's Arrogant Bastard, one of the most iconic IPAs in the country and one that's long been served in 12 and 22 oz bottles, has recently made the change by adding a 16 oz can option.
Of course, there are plenty of outstandingly good, equally hype-driven brews that are packaged in bottles – Trillium, Toppling Goliath, and 3 Floyds, for example, are all terrifically well-regarded breweries that bottle their critically acclaimed hoppy beers. But increasingly, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The issue for smaller breweries, though, is that canning is more expensive and less convenient than bottling when you're dealing with small batch sizes.
For the big players, buying and setting up an in-house canning line is pricey but worthwhile. If you're just starting out and only brew a few case's worth of beer at a time, it's a lot easier to bottle that batch – which you can do manually in an afternoon or two – than it is to buy a big, expensive canning line. Luckily for brewers, another option has started gaining ground: mobile canning businesses. Rent one of them for the day once your beer is ready to go, and they'll roll up to your brewhouse with a canning system in tow so that you can package your beer quickly, easily, and without the high cost of buying the equipment yourself.
Even with all that said, the brown glass bottle isn't at risk of extinction – it's the traditional option, and still makes up the overwhelming majority of take-home craft beer sales.
But given that cans are in many ways the smarter choice from the consumer perspective, and are growing increasingly convenient and affordable from the brewer perspective, it's hard to imagine them not continuing their upward trajectory.
We'll drink to that.