It Appears That I Was Very, Very Wrong About Canned Beer

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A week ago I confessed my bias against beer that came out of cans, rather than from a tap or one of the brown glass bottles that have come to be associated with America's craft-brew renaissance. Reminder, on the counting-our-blessings principle: for us Yanks this truly is the Golden Age of Beer.

I have the additional blessing of being able to rely on the reading public to set me straight. In case you shared my confusion on this topic, the sampling of messages below may be useful to you as well. Visual aid at right: a can of Surly Furious, one of the fine products of Surly Brewing company of Minnesota, which many readers touted.

From a reader in Pennsylvania:

Snob! Throwback! Don't you read Consumer Reports? Cans are much superior to bottles in protecting beer from light, its worst enemy. All the classy European beers come in cans. If you've ever ordered beer on an airplane, it was in a can because a canned beer weighs only 2/3 as much as a bottled one. It also doesn't shatter if dropped. The idea that the beer tastes of aluminum is an urban legend. After all, draft beer comes in a big can.

Many people wrote to hammer home the point made in that last sentence. As someone in Colorado put it, "New Belgium Brewing in Ft. Collins has their flagship brew "Fat Tire" available in cans as well as their "Ranger IPA" [JF: I have had this, and it's great] and "Sunshine Wheat".  Great for traveling.  And don't forget, ALL draft beer is packaged in aluminum kegs."

Similarly:

I remember a brewer telling me once that cans are just as good as bottles for storing beer -- in fact maybe better since they don't let light in.

The problem, he said, is that your sense of taste comes partly through your nose, by way of smell.  When you drink beer from a can, your nose is buried in the aluminum can.  When you drink from a bottle, you're not smelling aluminum.  When you pour a beer in a glass, your nose is in the glass, and you can smell the beer as well as taste it.  He held that preference for tap beer is largely rooted in this fact.

So pour your Dale's Pale Ale in a glass, and see how it stacks up.  I'm not sure a glass can help your Texas Pride, however.  The theory has its limits.

Yes, I agree. Except in conditions of duress, I drink my beer out of a glass, not a bottle or can. Seeing it is part of the enjoyment! Except perhaps for Texas Pride. Also:

Aluminum canning has a ton of advantages over bottling. First, it's lighter and stronger than bottles, which means easier transportation. Weight also means that cans are supposedly more environmentally friendly than bottles (this Slate article explores the issue). Second, aluminum blocks light and glass doesn't. Even though amber glass does a reasonably good job, you can still see the liquid, right? Ultraviolet light exposure is probably the worst thing that can happen to your brew. Lastly, cans are just easier to handle on the consumer end. Lightweight, less breakable, easy to recycle, just a lot nicer on that end.

So why don't more craft brewers can beers? According to my friends, it's because it costs a hell of a lot of money to set up a canning operation. Filling bottles is relatively easy by comparison (obviously, filling kegs is even easier). That's basically the long and short of it, as far as I can tell.

After the jump, one more omnibus in-praise-of-canned-beer message. This is just a small fraction of what came in, but for now I say: Uncle! Thanks! And I'm looking for Surly.

From another reader in Colorado, which is one of several states contending for the title of America's current craft-brew-nirvana:

Whoa, I sort of assumed you already knew about Dale's Pale Ale*.  You probably then don't know about Upslope Brewing, or Avery either or the myriad other craft cans (a quick google search yielded this somewhat informative site: http://craftcans.com/ )...

Canned craft beers are BOOMING here in Colorado and the reason is not just that CO is one of the epicenters of US craft brewing, more importantly CO is also the foremost state (or 2nd) for outdoor recreation/outdoor lifestyle.  And for that set of people, cans have always been far preferable because:

  -they are more durable
  -always openable
  -if damaged are not dangerous
  -if damaged you may be able to salvage the bulk of the contents
  -easier to clean up the debris if damaged
  -once finished are superiorly packable and light (pack it in, pack it out!)
  -have compact regular shapes that are easy to pocket/pack (or load a cooler)
  -are somewhat softer if you crash with one in a pocket (still hurts like a mother though)
  -chill faster
  -fit in a koozie** better
etc...
 
Before Oskar Blues, most outdoorsy people packed whatever canned beer they preferred (I'm a Hamm's drinker myself but recognize it is an acquired taste!) for the above reasons even if they really would have preferred a "good" bottled beer.


* Sheesh, don't you East Coast Liberal Media Elites stick together, DPA won a NYT tasting a couple of years ago.
 [JF: Actually, it placed respectably in the top ten, rather than "winning." Still, a fair point.]

** koozie tips: In the winter they keep your hand insulated from the cold can and keep the beer from freezing, in the summer one can be wetted before putting the can in and evaporative cooling will keep the can chilled for a long, long time (evaporative cooling of course works best in arid climates...like Colorado).
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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