There’s been some great back and forth over on James Fallows’ blog about whether good beer can come in a can, and whether cans do a better job than bottles at protecting beer from UV rays, which are known to create some off-flavors. I’ll only add that I used to be in the pro-bottle “snob” camp until I had my first Dale’s Pale Ale a few years back. I later discovered Pork Slap Ale and Moo-Thunder Stout from Butternuts Brewery, which convinced me that Dale’s isn’t a fluke. And since then, I’ve found quite a few canned gems.
I also tend to agree with the masses that beer always tastes better out of a glass, but I think this seems to hold true regardless of whether it’s poured from a can or bottle. And I have to admit, I don’t know too much about the whole UV ray issue, but I’m easily impressed/convinced by dorky charts such as the one in James’ final post.
I enjoyed reading through the entire chain, and thought I’d reproduce it here.
Here’s James’ first post, “Black Cheese, Green Meat, and Beer in a Can”:
From high school I recall some amateur-psychology experiment about the power of sensory incongruities. If you were offered a piece of cheese that was colored black, or a slice of meat that was green, you would think, Yucckkk!, even if its taste was perfectly fine.
I’m not going to get into whether this behavior is learned, innate, evolutionarily sensible, or whatever. I’ll just say that I have the same reaction to beer in a can. If it is coming from a metal housing — like the one at the right, which I saw all too often in my long-lost years in Texas — then I (snobbishly) assume it is not going to be very good. Or, even worse, the one at the left, popular during an era in American history I don’t even tell my children about.
Imagine then my confusion at encountering the beer below in a local store. It’s is called Dale’s Pale Ale, and it looks like it comes from the same schlock brewing tradition as Texas Pride. I would have instinctively shied even from getting close to it on the rack, let alone buying or drinking it — were it not for a reader’s note saying: Never mind that it’s in a can, it’s good.
And it is! Here it is, shown on this sunny February afternoon in DC.
Historians of the American craft-brew wars are presumably well familiar, as I was not, with Dale’s Pale Ale and the Oskar Blues brewery in Colorado that produces it. The brewer who came up with the formula tells the Creation Story of the beer, and the brewery has an official-description pagethat tells more about its pedigree, awards, and so on. The brewery also includes this claim to restoring the dignity of canned beers as a whole:
America’s first hand-canned craft beer is a voluminously hopped mutha that delivers a hoppy nose, assertive-but-balanced flavors of pale malts and hops from start to finish. First canned in 2002, Dale’s Pale Ale is a hearty (6.5% and 65 IBUs), critically acclaimed trailblazer that has changed the way craft beer fiends perceive canned beer.
I’ll say: it’s a start. Try it for yourself. And if you’re tempted to send me a lecture about not judging things on appearance, I’ll say: Yeah, yeah, tell me about it when you’re eating green meat.
Here’s the second post, “It Appears That I Was Very, Very Wrong About Canned Beer”:
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 Brewingcompany 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.”
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
-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)
-fit in a koozie** better
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.
And finally, science comes to the rescue in the final (?) post, “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.