By Steven Perlberg
When Durango, Colorado-based craft beer company Ska Brewing first chose to favor canning instead of bottling their beer, it was all about practicality—glass bottles simply didn’t mesh with the founders’ outdoorsy lifestyle. “Bottles are no good for river trips,” Ska’s Dave Welz told Business Insider. Also, “You might want to have a beer at the summit of a hike.” Then, they were following in the canning footsteps of fellow Colorado craft brewer Oskar Blues.
Now canned beer—for Ska based more on a rugged ethos than its bottom line—has proliferated across the country like the craft beer phenomenon before it. Canning innovation is on the rise. And why not? It’s cheaper to produce and better for the environment, Welz says. Budweiser recently brought us a much-mocked “bowtie” can. After years of resistance, American beer giant Sam Adams unveiled the “Sam can,” upending the old beer maxim about bottled beer having more flavor and sophistication. “As we looked at it, we realized it has all these other advantages,” Welz said.
First, canned beer weighs less. Less packaging means you can move the same amount of product in fewer trips, reducing a firm’s expenses and carbon footprint at the same time. Whole Foods, which retails its share of craft beer, has seen a 30 percent increase in canned beer sales in the past year. MarketWatch describes the paradigm shift:
As of 2012, cans constituted 53.2% of the beer market while bottles had a 36.5% share — a fairly significant gap. By contrast, in 2006, the two packagings were much closer in popularity — cans accounted for 48.3% of the market and bottles 41.9%. (Draft beer largely accounts for the rest of brew sales.)
To everyone’s delight, canning is also better for a beer’s quality, according to Welz. Cans don’t let light in, plain and simple. “Light is destructive to the organic compound in beer that make the flavors everyone is so crazy about,” he said. Welz also suspects that cans, with a “double-crimped” seal, are better than bottles at preventing air from getting in—air being one of the main enemies of a delicious brew. All that is true, but Ska Brewing thinks the mounting consumer preference for canned beer has less to do with quality and more to do with convenience. Biking to the store? Grab cans over bottles. Tired of glass breaking in the cooler on your road trip? Cans are safer. Own a grocery store (or a refrigerator)? Cans are more stackable.
There are a few other theories to explain the trend here. Cans harken back to a simpler time. Thanks to a sense of hipster nostalgia, Pabst Blue Ribbon enjoys its current reign among penny-pinching Brooklynites. Canned beer also chills better, and collective hysteria over BPA poisoning—a chemical in the lining of aluminum and plastic products—has gone out of vogue.
Bottles certainly aren’t going anywhere (Sam Adams’ flagship will remain its bottled Boston Lager). Even Ska bottles some of its beers, such as the—wait for it—“Buster Nut Brown Ale.” It’s that kind of plucky craft beer aesthetic that has dislodged the American beer industry. Instead of just sticking to their recognizable mainstays, breweries like Anheuser-Busch now want you to buy craft beer look-alikes like Shock Top. “Beer used to be defined by its packaging,” explains Welz. But as more and more craft beers pop up in can form, “People are interested to find why it’s been turned on its head.”