The Cans! The Cans! He Hates the Cans! Get Away from the Cans!

Craft beer has slowly begun to embrace cans. Until just a few years ago this was unthinkable. Canned beer represented everything better-beer activists opposed.

Sly Fox Cans

It was the small Oskar Blues Brewing in Lyons, Colorado that changed it all when they bought a $10,000 micro-sized canning line from Cask Brewing Systems. Sales have been exploding ever since, and profits increased by more than 100% in 2006.

I recently visited the Sly Fox Brewing brewpub in Phoenixville, PA. In addition to having a couple pubs, Sly Fox packages three of their beers in aluminum cans. I bought a bunch and what I didn’t drink that night with my Phoenixville host Terry Bishop, I brought home with me.

Tonight, I pulled out the last three cans, one of each, to do a little informal tasting all by my lonesome while my lady rests in a hotel in Dubai while in transit to Afghanistan:

Pikeland Pils, 4.9% ABV, 44 IBUs, Original Gravity 11.7 Plato
I’m afraid this tasted just like a canned light lager. I’m sure it tasted better when I first got it almost two months ago. But now it tastes metallic. Maybe the freshness made a difference and there’s more of an effect the longer the beer stays in a can. The best thing would be to do a blind tasting of the same beer, one example from a glass, one from a can, and one from draft.

Phoenix Pils

Dunkel Lager, 5.3% ABV, 21 IBUs, OG 13 Plato
A unique ruby-copper color, shy of a porter but a deeper red than most amber beers. This one struck me and Terry both as the best of the three back when I first tasted them with him. It’s a light, smooth easy-drinking lager without the metal-edged bitterness of the Pils but with just enough body and roundness on the back of the tongue to make it interesting.

Phoenix Pale Ale, 5.1% ABV, 40 IBUs, OG 13 Plato
It’s a perfectly good pale ale. I’d even call it better than average. Moderate hoppy bitterness balanced with a malty backbone. Nothing out of proportion. A medium bodied American style pale ale that doesn’t go out of bounds with the hops.

Shake Your Can and Say Yeah!
Extra points to Sly Fox for listing the alcohol level, bitterness units, and original gravity on each can. The bitterness is nice to know since people have very different preferences. The original gravity seems less important since it’s main implication – alcohol content – is unknown unless they also include the final gravity and since they include the alcohol content anyway, original gravity probably doesn’t mean much to most beer drinkers. It does have some bearing on the overall body of the beer though so for some people it might be nice to know.

In general, sharing factual information about a product says to me that the makers respect their customers and would prefer to inform them rather than insult them with unfounded and ridiculous marketing bullshit like “made from the finest hops” or “guaranteed to get your jimmy thicker.”

Benefits of Beer in a Can
Even though I drank all three of these from a glass, there is something very satisfying about drinking beer straight from a can. I guess it’s just memories of college (okay, high school too) sitting around crushing cans with my feet or between the palms of hands (I never had the guts (stupidity? coordination?) to smash ’em against my forehead). Holding a beer can just feels good.

There are also considerable environmental benefits to using aluminum cans rather than glass bottles. I actually devote a section of my book to this very topic. It turns out that glass, although it has certain aesthetic benefits, is a worse option for the environment, at least in most cases. Glass bottles weigh much more and take up more space, which means they require more fossil fuel to transport. Glass is also much less efficient to recycle.

From the moment they enter the curbside recycling bin, aluminum cans take as little as six weeks to appear back on the shelf as new cans. Glass is much more energy intensive to recycle and takes longer to get through the process. Glass growlers are an important exception – since they can be used over and over again and because they are filled with beer at local brewpubs, which means the beer isn’t traveling far. And there are real problems related to aluminum mining, whereas glass is basically liquid sand. But the benefits of aluminum recycling are so significant that only glass growlers are favorable environmentally.

Another factor in favor of cans is that they can go places bottles can’t. Cans are much less prone to break and they weigh less so it’s easier to take them places like outdoor events, camping, tail-gating, the beach, or wherever.

And the new small-scale canning lines cost a lot less than big glass bottle lines. Low-cost small scale equipment means more local pubs can afford to sell their beers to take out, which means more people are able to support local beers even when they aren’t physically drinking at the brewpub.

Oh yeah, in case the title of this post was confusing, it comes from the Steve Martin movie The Jerk. The protagonist believes that his stalker actually just hates cans because every time the stalker shoots at him Steve is near some cans. Who knows, some craft beer drinkers may actually hate canned beer enough to shoot at those of us who drink them.

But I’m a rebel, so to them I say: Go cans!

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15 Responses to The Cans! The Cans! He Hates the Cans! Get Away from the Cans!

  1. satjiwan says:

    Well, the craft brewing industry will only demonstrate its maturity when a little paper umbrella pops out when you open a can of their special cocktail beer.

    “The phone books are here! The phone books are here!”

    (re: second to last paragraph)

  2. beeractivist says:

    “All I need is this thermos” . . . filled with craft beer!

  3. steve says:

    hmmm, The Thermos is a good idea … if it works ..

    Remember, it’s not the can, but the beer you put in it ! I’m looking forward to more good beer in cans. Oskars’ is a big BIG for me .. malty and hoppy.

    Cheers !

  4. Hummingbird says:

    The best way to serve a good beer is from a keg. Sorry. 😉 We tried some bottling a bit ago, and it works well, but since we are home brewing we will reuse the bottles. What Germany does is ideal, 1, they have local brewers in almost every town, 2. you buy your beer (and every other drink) at a “getrinkt markt”, and you pay a deposit and bring back the damned bottles! They refill them at the LOCAL brewery.

    The aluminum boxite industry is a horribly dirty and nasty industry. It’s just about as bad as the coal industry. I don’t like encouraging the use of aluminum cans, unless we can be sure that the aluminum will indeed be recycled. And I really wonder if the aluminum doesn’t affect the taste – and the nutritional value – remember they warn you not to cook certain things in aluminum pots. I’ve tasted a difference of beer in a can and in a bottle of non-craft beers, and I always taste the metallic taste. Now I don’t know if that isn’t just because I’m drinking from the can or what (since i’m literally tasting the metal before the beer hits my tongue.)

    Glass is recycled too! I guess I’m must a big advocate of glass for beer. Now if we can come up with recycled bottles made of CORN, (not petroleum) products, I’m not sure how well they will hold beer, but I since plastic bottles hold coke, why not corn plastic bottles holding craft beer?

  5. Hummingbird says:

    ok, I guess they can’t do those yet (bottles out of corn plastic). But here’s an interesting article on corn plastic. There are problems with it, but it may end up being the wave of the future.

    For that matter, why isn’t beer in plastic bottles (which is now fairly recyclable). It can house soda, so why not beer? Does it affect the taste?

    A little research (I mean VERY little) revealed to me that because of beer’s sensitivity to oxygen, unlike soda or bottled water, the industry (at whatever level) has not put beer in plastic bottles. However, the plastics industry (yes, I QUAIL at using them as a source) claim that there are new plastics that will be capable of bottling beer. Miller is now going to start putting their beer in plastic bottles at stadiums. It’s a controversial move in some ways, because more plastic bottles will be tossed in landfills, but on the other hand, with the mandatory recycling laws that are popping up all over the country, it might be more environmentally friendly than even the corn plastic concept, at least for now. Apparently, PET products are far easier to recycle at this point than their corn equivalents. Corn plastics need at least 140° to degrade in a landfill – over a week, and most community composting sites don’t go to that kind of temperature. (And home composting systems don’t work). If the temps don’t get that high then corn products will last about the same amount of time as PET products do. Which is unknown, estimated at 1000 years. Currently there are only about 113 recycling centers that can handle corn plastic products. Hmmm. wonder if this would be a problem for hemp based plastic?

    Eventually, we will have the technology to handle corn based plastics. In the meantime, it’s probably worthwhile encouraging using recyclable plastic for beer, if we can be sure it won’t affect taste or leach into the beer. Or just stick with glass or kegs (which is my decision).

    Glass recycles pretty well.

  6. Hummingbird says:

    Hi Chris… doing research tonight… so here I am again.

    The problem with using aluminum is two-fold. Even though recycling aluminum cans uses 5% of the energy and produces 5% of the waste that fresh mining of aluminum boxite mining produces, the fact is that 800 million tons of aluminum cans are NOT recycled every year. Even though recycling aluminum cans is the best recyclng method in the country, people just don’t do it. They need an incentive. Money might work.

    This is a press release, so I think I can repost it under fair use:

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 17, 2006

    CONTACT:
    Jenny Gitlitz, CRI Research Dir., Dalton, MA (413) 684-4746
    Pat Franklin, CRI Executive Dir., Washington, DC (202) 263-0999
    Glenn Switkes, IRN Latin America Dir., Sao Paolo, Brazil 011.55.11.3822.4157
    Peter Bosshard, IRN Policy Dir., Berkeley, CA (510) 848–1155

    The Aluminum Can’s Dirty Little Secret:
    On-going Environmental Harm Outpaces the Metal’s “Green” Benefits

    WASHINGTON, DC (May 17, 2006)— Industry “greenwashing” obscures the real environmental costs of aluminum production, according to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) and the International Rivers Network (IRN), two non-profit environmental organizations.

    According to CRI executive director Pat Franklin, optimistic data released yesterday by the Aluminum Association, an industry trade group, has a dark side. “The Association reported an increase of less than one percentage point in the national aluminum can recycling rate—from 51.2 to 52.0 percent,” she said, “but they failed to mention that we still are trashing 800,000 tons of aluminum beverage cans a year.” Franklin said this was equivalent to the annual output of 3-4 major primary aluminum smelters.

    “Frankly, I was surprised to see how slight the increase was, given the record-breaking prices for scrap aluminum cans in 2005,” she noted, adding that the actual number of cans collected last year (51.4 billion) was 100 million fewer than the number collected in 2004 (51.5 billion).

    The beverage and aluminum industries tout the can as “the most recyclable” package in America, said Jennifer Gitlitz, CRI research director. “But recyclable doesn’t necessarily mean recycled. More than half of the 99 billion cans sold in the U.S. last year were landfilled or incinerated.” Gitlitz said a similar amount wasn’t recycled in other countries, for a global total of about 1.5 million tons of wasted cans.

    “These trashed cans must be replaced with new cans made entirely from virgin materials,” Gitlitz said, “and that is where the environmental damage occurs.”

    She cited bauxite mining and processing as a major source of water pollution. “Each ton of aluminum cans requires 5 tons of bauxite ore to be strip-mined, crushed, washed, and refined into alumina before it is smelted,” she explained. “The process creates about 5 tons of caustic red mud residue which can seep into surface and groundwater,” said Gitlitz. People and animals have suffered from the effects of bauxite mining in Jamaica, Brazil, Australia, and other tropical areas, she noted.

    “We’re talking about immense energy consumption,” said Gitlitz. “3% of the electricity generated worldwide goes to aluminum. While aluminum companies often cite big savings from recycling, they fail to mention that at current wasting levels, about 23 billion kilowatt-hours are squandered globally each year through ‘replacement production.’ About 7 kWh are saved per pound (33 cans) recycled. Had the billions of cans trashed been recycled, the electricity saved could power 1.3 million American homes.”

    According to the International Aluminum Institute, about a third of the primary aluminum produced worldwide uses coal-generated electricity, 10% relies on oil and natural gas-fired electricity generation, 5% is nuclear powered, and about half uses hydroelectricity (dams). In total, the industry’s annual electricity consumption is almost 300 billion kilowatt-hours, or about 3% of the world’s total electricity consumption.

    Much of the electricity used by the industry is available at below-market prices. According to Glenn Switkes, Latin America director of the Berkeley-based International Rivers Network, “Aluminum companies are relocating to the tropics because governments in developing countries are providing them with subsidized hydroelectricity. These dams have irreversible impacts on biodiversity, and displace thousands of riverbank dwellers and indigenous peoples.” Aluminum companies are the principal force behind the Brazilian government’s plans to dam the major rivers of the Amazon, he said.

    “Valuable ecosystems on every continent have been destroyed for the convenience of the aluminum industry and consumers,” added Peter Bosshard, Policy Director of International Rivers Network. “Hydropower dams linked to aluminum smelters have flooded vast tracts of land, displaced tens of thousands of people, and created unsustainable debt burdens for poor countries.” He cited the Karahnjukar Dam in Eastern Iceland and the Akosombo Dam in Ghana as two particularly egregious examples of destructive dam-and-aluminum projects.

    Another dirty secret, according to CRI, is aluminum’s contribution to climate change. About 95 million tons of greenhouse gases were produced by the global aluminum industry in 2005.

    “While the industry as a whole has made laudable technical improvements to reduce greenhouse emissions for each ton of primary aluminum produced,” Gitlitz said, “it has consistently failed to eliminate the portion of greenhouse gasses that come from replacing 1.5 million tons of trashed cans with new ones made from virgin materials–that is to say–from bauxite and electricity.”

    Primary aluminum smelting also generates sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, which are contributors to smog and acid rain. “Had the cans wasted in 2005 been recycled,” Gitlitz said, “they would have avoided the emission of 75,000 tons of SOx and NOx.”

    “The Aluminum Association’s press release is about the national average aluminum can recycling rate,” Franklin observed. “But the eleven U.S. states with beverage container deposit laws (or “bottle bills”) recycle 75-95% of cans all sold. States without deposits only recycle 35% of cans sold.”

    “This means that there is already a realistic policy option to combat container waste,” Franklin said, “but it has not been adopted more widely due to industry lobbying, public relations, and lip service.”

    “The beverage industry spends millions each year to combat deposit legislation, while we continue to trash 5 out of every 10 cans sold,” Franklin said. “If container and beverage producers won’t accept responsibility for managing their can waste, Americans need to ask their state legislators to do the job.”

    # # #

    Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Container Recycling Institute is a non-profit (501c3) organization that analyzes beverage container sales, recycling, and wasting trends, and advocates policy measures to increase recycling and reduce the environmental damages from container production and disposal.

    Headquartered in Berkeley, CA, the International Rivers Network protects rivers and defends the rights of communities that depend on them. IRN opposes destructive dams and the development model they advance, and encourages better ways of meeting people’s needs for water, energy and protection from destructive floods.

    For more information, see the CRI report, “Trashed Cans: the Global Environmental Impacts of Aluminum Can Wasting in America,” a free download: http://www.container-recycling.org/alum_facts.htm#reports

    and the IRN report, “Foiling the Aluminum Industry: A Toolkit for Communities, Activists, Consumers, and Workers,” available at: http://www.irn.org/programs/aluminum/index.php?id=archive/Foiling2005.html.

  7. […] makes that “canned” beer taste a thing of the past. Plus, there are now several fine craft breweries canning their beer. Just a few weeks ago I attended a tasting with the brewery/owner of Oskar Blues – the first micro […]

  8. […] because he lives about five minutes down the road from a great brewpub in Phoenixville, PA called Sly Fox Brewing. I’ve spent a couple memorable afternoons and evenings there with him and wish I had that […]

  9. chuck says:

    Recycling is unbelievably important, today more than ever. It makes me very happy to discover resources like this on the net today providing free information for the masses. I just wish there were even more people making such positive contributions to the internet. Thanks for the info.

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