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Bottles or Cans?

by Matt O'Connor

With today’s write up, I want to talk not just about a great beer, but an interesting trend in brewing as a whole: the aluminum can. The year 2011 marks the first year since 2001 that consumption of canned beer outpaced the combined consumption of bottled and draft beer. (Reference: the US Beer Institute, and this handy chart) Canned beer hit a peak in 1991 with 60% of the market share, but the nineties were a decade of decline for aluminum cans. Due to the popularity of smaller craft brewers, bottles were on an uptick from 1990 until 2007.

Bottled beer became more popular for a few reasons. First and chief among them, it is cheaper to bottle than it is to can, and cheaper is better for the smaller breweries born in the 1990s. For example, I can bottle beer myself at home with a $30 capper and the empties I collect from my six-packs, but I certainly do not have the infrastructure to fill and seal aluminum cans. Second, as these craft brewers became popular, bringing a six-pack of bottles to a party became more fashionable than toting in jingling cans held together by plastic rings. Sure, not all consumers are this transparent, but trends are trends for a reason. Canned beer has always been associated with cheaper beer brands and as better tasting craft beer was being produced in glass bottles, consumers leapt at the opportunity to have both better beer and a better drinking image.

What explains the can beating out the bottle since 2007? We have two reasons being floated by market experts: the economy and the changing image of the can. The year 2007 coincides with the beginning of the Great Recession. Some consumers found switching to cheaper brands helped their wallet. However, a more convincing argument would be that cans became sexy again as the perfect package to protect your beer from light, air, and deliver it frosty cold to your glass. The stats would seem to support this theory. People weren’t fleeing en masse to cheap beers. In 2010, the Beverage Information Group noted a decline in overall beer sales of 2.3%, but in the same year craft brewers reported an uptick of 10% in sales. As big beers faltered, small beers thrived. As a general rule of thumb, craft beer is pricier than mass-market brands, so the economy explanation deserves a doubt or two. Instead, advocates of the can promote its superiority to bottles as the reason for the spike in sales driven by craft brewers switching to cans or adding cans to their lineup of bottled beers.

As with any product there are pros and cons. Advocates of the can point to the fact that aluminum cans protect beer from damaging light, seal out oxygen better than their bottled brethren, and are more widely and efficiently recycled than glass bottles. In the past few years we’ve seen Sierra Nevada (Chico, CA), Harpoon (Boston, MA) and others begin to can their beers, joining the ranks of brewers who have always embraced the can including Oskar Blues (Longmont, CO) and 21st Amendment (San Francisco, CA). Some can opponents still believe that there is a metallic taste imparted to the beer, including Jim Koch of Samuel Adams. Still others oppose canning from a moral standpoint, including the Lagunitas Brewing Company who have proudly declared that they will be the last brewer in America to use aluminum cans. Lagunitas’ contention is with the negative environmental impact of mining for aluminum and the process of extraction from bauxite ore. The science of the mining is a bit beyond the scope of this post, so I can merely promise you on taste if you throw out your prejudices, I promise you’ll find the beers in cans as good or better than bottles. In fact, I propose to do just that today.

I picked a local beer that is newly available in cans. Cisco Brewers is located on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. Their motto is “Nice beer … if you can get it.” Luckily, it’s pretty widely available in Massachusetts, but it is also available throughout New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the DC metro area, as well as down the east coast in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. So, try some if you can indeed “get it.”

Today’s beer is their summer seasonal, very succinctly summing up the contents of the can: Summer of Lager. It’s a Bavarian-style Helles lager that Cisco declares is its lightest and most refreshing beer. In a recent email exchange with Jay Harman, one of Cisco’s top brains, I was assured that Cisco is proud of their canned brew and feel that overall it’s a better product. I was tasked with comparing the same beer in cans and bottles and I took on the challenge.

Summer of Lager pours a nearly clear orange gold, with a nice two fingers of white foam head. The only difference I see between the bottle and can is the bottle is a bit cloudier. I had emailed Cisco to see if the filtering process is different between cans and bottles, but was assured it’s the same beer and perhaps any cloudiness is from the proteins being a bit light struck from the sun’s UV rays. Interesting, but it is only a minor cosmetic issue and may be localized to my particular store’s set of bottles.

The aromas are identical; a great hit of Mt. Hood hops, which are hybrid strain modeled after German Hallertau hops, with bread and grassy notes. It has that classic clean lager smell, no fruity or buttery ale aromas to be found here. The lager yeast has worked for months to produce this beer. Cisco brews it up in October for bottling and canning in the late Spring of the following year.

The taste is instantly refreshing, with a great carbonation level, as the bubbles giving way to a nice malty backbone. The bitterness of the hops is present as well and leaves a dry, pleasant astringency in your mouth. The finish really compels you to take another sip. This stuff is deliciously refreshing yet flavorful in bottles or cans. I have no doubt the can might keep the beer fresher longer, so maybe the parity between the two is because they’re both fresh. Either way, even if they taste identical the portability and recyclability arguments are compelling. Can or bottle, take your pick, just don’t be afraid of the can! Be sure to check out this quality brew. Cheers! Grade: A-


The Facts:

Cisco Brewers’ Summer of Lager

Style: Bavarian Helles Lager

ABV: 5.6%


Also Try:

Amber, Abita Brewing Company (Abita Springs, LA). Grade: B+

Undercover Investigation Shut-down Ale, Lagunitas Brewing Company (Petaluma, CA). Grade: A

Image courtesy of the author

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Matt O’Connor lives in Boston and is a proud graduate of Boston University. Explore beer with him as he quits his job in the sciences and starts law school. Send any requests, beer, or job offers to him at: matt.oconnor[at]