Canned Beer Is The Future of Good BeerS

America makes some of the world's finest beers. And now those beers are getting the conveyance they deserve—cans.

Why do people always sit in a circle? I'm leaned back in my nylon camp chair, fishing around in the mesh net of the cup holder for a lighter. Most of the people at this BBQ know each other from work, so conversation sometimes takes a little time to ramp up.

"What's that beer?" The guy across from me is wearing a metal band t-shirt and flip-flops. Later he'll grill me about Android phones. But for now he wants to know what I'm sipping from my steel-and-saffron can.

"Mama's Little Yella Pils. There's more in the cooler. Try one."

"I'll just have a sip if you don't mind." He daintily avoids backwashing, which isn't very metal. "Fancy."

Bullshit.

Canned Beer Is The Future of Good BeerS

Vintage cans photographed by Sean Tubridy

Cans Are Better, QED

I'll spare you the "craft beer vs. mainstream beer" sermon. If you're happy drinking beer from the big brewers, it's no skin off my dick. And while I don't prefer the standard American pilsner, I think it's laudable that the big brewers can pump out millions of gallons of Bud, Coors, and Miller every day that tastes consistently similar year after year. It may not be art, but it's sure as hell engineering to be proud of.

But truck no guff about drinking beer out of a can, from real ale snob or otherwise. Bottles are fragile, heavy (620 grams compared to 366 grams on average for a standard 12-ounce bottle), let in light that can skunk your beer, and are harder to pack in and out on float trips and hikes. Bottles don't stack in the refrigerator. Plus if you drop a can it doesn't shatter into a hundred tendon-lacerating shards. Half the time you can pick it back up and finish your drink! (Dropping a can on a sharp rock was how a caveman first discovered how to shotgun a can of beer—another thing you can't do with a bottle.)

Canned Beer Is The Future of Good BeerS

Vintage cans photographed by Sean Tubridy

Cans on the Trail
Backpacking in the Sierras is an exercise in deprivation. You have to carry all your food in bear-proof canisters, which limits what you bring even more than usual. It's hot. It's dusty. And after a few days on the trail, I'm typically fucking dreaming of beer. I mean that literally. I'll actually dream of beer at night. And so as soon as I get into a joint with refrigeration, I'm drinking a beer, usually an Epic IPA. It has these hints of sage and pine and juniper that remind you of the trail. There's a satisfying emotional connection I make by actually popping the top on the can, it feels rough and manly and rugged like the wilderness. Moreover, you can hardly find it on the Western side of the Sierras—it's a 395 thing—and that only adds to the appeal. It's a vacation beer.


Oh, and if you are only out for a day or two, you can totally take a can with you. Pop it in a frigid Sierra stream for an hour when make camp, and enjoy it as the sun sinks behind your favorite mountain. – Mat Honan

The "Metallic" Myth

Bottles are fine, I guess, if only because so many beers I love come only in bottles. But the thing that matters most—taste—doesn't change a bit in a can.

The next time someone says canned beer tastes "metallic", cut a can in half and ask him to show you where the metal ever actually touches the beer. Then he'll point at the inside of the gleaming can and say, "Right there, asshole. I'm guessing all the metal."

What your friend is missing is the epoxy lining that is sprayed on the inside of every can, the same stuff we've used for about 40 years. You might get a little bisphenal A leaching into the beer, sure, but no metal.

There's not enough BPA to fret about in cans, frankly, especially since beer isn't heated at home. (Unless you're making beer-can chicken.) Nevertheless, Ball, one of the largest producers of aluminum cans in the world, as well as the company that makes the cans used by the majority of craft brewers, announced plans to make a BPA-free epoxy lining within the next couple of years at a recent packaging conference, according to an attendee.

Canned Beer Is The Future of Good BeerS

Vintage cans photographed by Sean Tubridy

Cans: The Real Mini-Keg

Think about your beloved draught beer. That comes in a keg, right? A big, metal keg that is lined with the same type of coating as your humble little can. In fact, back in the '30s—January 24th, 1935 to be precise—when American brewers started selling beers in cans they advertised it as "keg-lined." Unlike a lot of beer marketing, the claim wasn't that ridiculous.

Is it possible that canned beer tastes better than bottled beer? Well, sure. Maybe. Probably not. But that's often because of the way beer is transported from the brewery to the store. Light will accelerate the oxidation of beer—that's why most brewers use brown bottles, not green—but it's not the only way a beer develops off flavors like that of the aldehyde trans-2-nonenal, which can make light-colored beers taste like lipstick.

Heat's actually just as big a factor. If your beer stays refrigerated from the brewery to the store, without sitting on a shelf somewhere at room temperature, everything should be great. And a canned beer won't be subject to light oxidation like a bottle beer would. But to be fair, one of the things that makes a canned beer great—that it cools more quickly—is also going to make it more subject to the vagaries of heat differential. Factor in that many retailers view canned beer as "cheap" beer not worth keeping cold and canned beer's advantages on the oxidation front start to wane a skosh.

Canned Beer Is The Future of Good BeerS

Cask Brewing Systems's latest automated canning system, the ACS V3.5

By "Cask" We Mean "Cans"

You can thank one company for making craft beer in a can a reality: Cask Brewing Systems, a small Canadian firm that made their first canning system in response to the then-flagging "brew on site" phenomenon. Amateur brewers were finding their beers were going off too quickly, often because of less-than-optimally cleaned glassware.

Cask created a manual canning system and sold dozens to brew-on-site facilities. In 2002, Colorado brewery Oskar Blues bought a Cask canning system. Now nearly ten years and a handful of fully automated systems later, Cask can't make enough canning systems to keep up with demand. Cask told me the company is backordered until December. "We can't make them fast enough."

What that means for the craft beer drinker is even more canned beers coming online from your favorite breweries over the next year. It wouldn't surprise me if every mid-sized craft brewer has a canned option in the next couple of years. That's excellent news for beer drinkers and can collectors alike.

Canned Beer Is The Future of Good BeerS

I would like to thank the above beers for this column.

Original art by guest artist Chuck Anderson. See Chuck's work at www.nopattern.com and follow him on Twitter.