These practices are often deliberately opaque. Environmental concerns are not the largest driver behind the adoption of beer cans by craft brewers; flavor is. Glass, especially clear or green, does not block sunlight. UV rays create a photo-oxidation in hops, which creates 3-MBT, the flavor that imparts skunkiness. (This reaction can happen in as little as ten seconds, for those of you enjoy brunching al fresco.) Further, the can itself offers wider acreage for branding purposes. The resulting intricate designs can border on hipster brinksmanship, which is nicely mirrored by Budweiser’s recent rebranding of itself as America, or America as itself.
As Ian Wiggins of Union Distribution told me, it’s very difficult to get a new brewery off the ground unless the design work, beer names, and general branding are emphasized as much the brewing itself. Despite the mass media narrative of craft beer as something independently wealthy hipsters do when they’re not waxing their beards, the intensely crowded market and extremely high mark-up cost, even for self-distributing breweries, creates serious hurdles for entry-level brewers. Wiggins says nascent brewers will often invest in a bottling line over a canning line, since many restaurants won’t carry cans.
Finback Brewery, which opened five years ago without either, focused on kegging and hand-bottling. This is possible when 95 percent of your market is in New York City, which, as CEO Basil Lee says, is a “draft drinking culture.” However, Lee says, “the main reason we haven’t brewed in the last year is having a full tank.” The last stage of brewing is the bright tank, where the beer is carbonated, which remains occupied until the beer is kegged, bottled, or canned. If you’re dependent on kegging, then you have no control whether bars go through those kegs in a day, or a week, or even two. Finback’s solution is a portable canning line, owned and set up by Iron Heart, which can empty a bright tank in under a day. (Other reports from craft brewers have not been as optimistic about canning, citing competition for cans, shortages, and prohibitive prices.) As Lee points out, if you’re drinking in a bar, your only real exposure to a beer’s brand, outside of the liquid itself, is a little write-up on a bar menu, a twenty second conversation with a bartender (if you’re lucky), and maybe a glimpse of a tap handle. Cans are physical manifestations of a brand, at a time when the act of branding is, conversely, becoming less and less attached to objects themselves.
Today, the beverage can accounts for the single largest use of aluminum in the world. Even in Europe, where the consumption of real ale comprises a political statement and the purity of German beer subject to state law, the beer can is finally experiencing a (gradual) growth. As always, Capital contorts to assume whatever position is most advantageous. The European Union recently approved Ball’s attempt to acquire Rexam, which would decrease the number of major can producers in Europe from four to three. Meanwhile, Alcoa split itself in two in the beginning of the year, attempting to perform better in the face of the slowdown in the Chinese economy. (Splitting up Alcoa is something even FDR famously failed to do.)