Wine Observed: This Time it’s Craft Beers
by Marty Ramsburg
Ten years ago, in November 2002, a craft beer producer made the iconoclastic decision to package its first beer for distribution in a can. Demand for beer produced by the Oskar Blues brewpub in tiny Lyons, Colorado, had grown steadily, encouraging owner, Dale Katechis to expand production beyond what could be consumed on-premise. Releasing his Dale’s Pale Ale in cans, Oskar Blues launched what Katechis terms the “Canned Beer Apocolypse.”
Until then, almost all craft producers used brown bottles, while cans were associated with characterless low-end, mass produced beer. Times have changed, with more and more craft brewers choosing cans over bottles. In fact, CraftCans.com contends that 184 breweries now can 556 different craft beers. Why? Simply put, those producers that have selected cans believe that, short of enjoying a draft beer at the source, cans deliver the freshest brew to the consumer.
Ideally, when you enjoy a beer at home, the flavors you are tasting are those that the brew-meister intended. Three factors, however, may intervene between you and the brewery that can change those intended flavors: light, oxygen, and temperature. Cans control for the first two factors, while it is up to the breweries, distributors and retailers to control for the last.
There is considerable debate among beer aficionados about the merits of cans v bottles. Zealots cite anecdotal evidence from blind tests with tasters sampling the same brew, one bottled and one canned, with cans coming out ahead. They have also staked the high ground environmentally, declaring cans “greener” than bottles. Enthusiasts point out that cans have a much higher recycling rate than bottles (55% for cans, only 28% for bottles) and that the recycled content for cans is much greater (68% for cans v 20%-30% for bottles). In addition, can proponents allege that the carbon footprint of cans is l ess since the energy associated with shipping the lightweight cans is much less than the energy used to distribute bottles.
Lagunitas Brewing owner, Tony Magee, disagrees, swearing that Lagunitas (Petaluma, Ca.) will be “the last brewery in the US to use aluminum cans.” For Magee, the environmental hazards affiliated with mining and processing the bauxite ore from which aluminum derives far outweigh the post-packaging environmental benefits. Magee acknowledges the carbon footprint associated with shipping costs, recently announcing that Lagunitas will open a brewery in Chicago to help reduce those.
If, like many Vermonters, you consider yourself an environmentalist, you have some very good beer choices to match your values: drink draft beer at any of the local watering holes, especially a draft, and enjoy beer that has undergone minimal shipping, e.g., Berkshire Brewing or Harpoon. If you want to enjoy a beer at home, choose a locally-brewed beer. Between Vermont, NH, ME and MA, we have an abundance of micro-breweries offering a variety of styles from which to choose. Give your palate a treat while treating the environment kindly as possible, regardless of whether can or bottle.