Science Speaks on the Crucial Canned Beer Question!

In response to previous installments one and two, an Actual Scientist writes to set us straight about what really happens to precious droplets of beer when they are housed in amber-colored glass bottles as opposed to metal cans:

Sure, cans will keep out light better than bottles. But I want to correct something one of your readers wrote regarding ultraviolet light getting through amber bottles. The reason for the amber coloration is that it allows longer-wavelength, low-energy light to pass through, but blocks the high-energy photons including virtually all of the UV. Here's one spectrum I could find online, here. (My students would look at me funny if I walked into the lab with empty beer bottles to take their spectra.)

Amber glass transmits some visible light, so yes you can still see the beer--and since beer has some color, it does absorb some visible light and in principle this can trigger some reactions. But it's UV light that does some serious photochemistry, and if your beer is in an amber bottle, you don't need to worry about UV. (You can neglect that tiny hump around 340 nm.) I would expect that the difference between amber glass and aluminum cans is minimal as far as photodegradation is concerned.

So there. Granted, this chart is from a company that makes protective glass, but at face value it suggests that no UV light at all makes its way through amber glass. I will turn to my bottles of Lagunitas or Victory or Sierra Nevada or [name your brown-bottle-using brewery] with hope and trust restored.

Further on the trail of error, a veteran of the beer industry writes to chastise not me but one of the readers I quoted.

Your post admitting a wrong opinion of beer cans contained the following quote from a reader:

>>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." <<

I work for a beer distributor and can assure you that beer kegs are not aluminum. The industry standard is steel, although some craft breweries have turned to plastic to cut costs.  I'm not aware of any beer kegs made of aluminum. Steel is used for its durability. Most kegs remain in circulation for many, many years.

Now, back to self-criticism as it applies to me. I mentioned yesterday that can-protected Dale's Pale Ale, of Colorado, had been in the "top ten" of a NYT tasting panel, rather than "winning" it, as a loyalist reader in Colorado had claimed. And in the most recent testing I was talking about, from 2010, that was indeed true. But the reader has come back to point out that in an earlier taste-test, in 2005, DPA had been the NYT's winner. So we're all right. And just as we still address George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter as "Mister President," even though someone else later got more votes than they did, so too can we refer to Dale's Pale Ale as a "national champion" beer, as at least once in its career it has been.

Bonus international comment after the jump.

A reader who has tried beers around the world reports:

Back in the 80's when I first tried hand-drawn British pub ales, I considered those to be the standard against which all other beers and ales should be measured. (These were quite a revelation after I had come of age thinking of beer as an industrial product that was sold on the basis of being refreshing, not tasting good - Miller Lite's almost tongue-in-cheek claim notwithstanding.)

Shortly thereafter, the American microbrew revolution took hold, and my tastes migrated to the American versions of those British ales, such as Mirror Pond Ale, Boont ESB and Firestone-Walker DBA. [JF: enthusiastic +1 on all of these!!] But along the way I discovered a canned British ale - Boddingtons - that is widely available in U.S. supermarkets and is a near-perfect rendition of the ale I have drunk in British pubs.
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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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