Not all beer is created equal, and that goes for the packaging as well. Whether your favourite Niagara microbrew is contained in a bottle, a can, or a draught keg, it can influence the quality of the product by the time it reaches your tongue. Let’s take a look at the major pros and cons of each container in an effort to help you decide which one is right for you.
Bottles put forth an aura of sophistication. They are visually attractive and classier than cans, allowing for more creative shapes and designs, and larger labels. Despite their aesthetic allure, bottles possess several drawbacks when the concern is keeping beer fresh for the long term. In fact, apart from their pleasing appearance (which can be a very effective marketing tool), there is little science to support bottles as the superior packaging choice.
Regardless of their colour, all bottles are translucent, and some are completely transparent. This means that light rays can penetrate the glass and come into contact with the beer. Light has a negative affect on beer because ultraviolet light and blue light cause a chemical reaction with hops (a constituent in all modern beers) which causes the hops to breakdown and release a compound that is chemically similar to that which is found in a skunk’s spray gland—yuck! This is why beer that has been negatively affected by light is often referred to as “skunked,” though the proper term for this is “light-struck.” The darker the colour of the glass bottle, the more protection the beer has from harmful light rays. Brown bottles are the most effective, followed by green bottles, and clear bottles provide no protection from light whatsoever.
Bottles are more susceptible to having faulty closures than cans or draught kegs. They are sealed with a crown cap that is made of metal on the outside and contains a nylon liner on the inside. The crown cap is fastened to the bottle by placing it on top of the glass opening and then “crimping” the ridged sides of the cap around the glass using force. The nylon is what we might call “air-tight” but it is not “molecule-tight.” It is possible for there to be a slow ingress of oxygen into the bottle if it is left unopened for several months. Bottles that have been transported carelessly and have been jostled rigorously may be susceptible to losing the integrity of their seal. This will spoil the beer by giving it an oxidized, papery mouthfeel.
Canned beer has a bit of a bad rap that dates back several decades. You may recall your dad drinking beer out of a can, and if your dad is anything like mine, the beer he was drinking wasn’t exactly what I would call “quality.” For a long time canned beer has conjured up an image of lug heads guzzling suds in parking lots, behaving obnoxiously, and crushing empty cans on their heads. This image is rapidly dwindling and cans are becoming the packaging of choice for Ontario’s craft brewers because of their ability to maintain freshness and their reduced cost of production.
Once you get past the image, the positive affects of containing beer in cans are many. Aluminum cans are completely opaque, disallowing any light rays from touching the beer and thereby maintaining the beer’s freshness. Cans possess an excellent seal that is completely molecule-tight. When the can is filled, the aluminum cylinder is a small vat with an open top. After filling, an aluminum top is placed over the little vat and the metal around the upper lip is folded over on itself to form a perfect seal.
Cans are lightweight, which means they are inexpensive to transport and easier to carry to the backyard or to the dock. Aluminum is easy to recycle, and, because metal is thinner than glass, your beer will become cold more quickly when stored on ice or in the refrigerator. Canned beer can also be enjoyed in settings where drinking out of glass could pose a safety hazard, such as next to a pool.
There is a common misconception that cans will impart a metallic taste into the beer over time. This is not true, as modern cans possess an inner lining that is made of BPA-free plastic.
A new innovation that has taken cans even further is the ‘vented can.’ The metal tab on these cans will open not one, but two orifices on the top of the can. The larger orifice is for pouring the beer, and the smaller orifice is to allow air to enter the can as you pour. This allows the beer to pour more smoothly and limits turbulence or “chugging” that can produce undesirable foam as the beer exits the can.
Kegs are the king of the bar scene and are often thought to provide the freshest example of a beer. Draught taps are pleasing to look at and there is an element of fun and excitement that comes from seeing your beautiful beer glide from a shiny tube into your glass, when poured by a well trained hand.
Following the path laid out so far in our discussion on bottles and cans, there are two elements that make draught beer a good choice when the concern is freshness: kegs are opaque, which means they prevent any harmful light rays from touching the beer, and, kegs are well sealed to prevent oxygen from entering the vessel.
The downfall of draught kegs is not in their design but in their maintenance. More specifically, the maintenance of the pipes that draw the beer from the keg to the bar tap. It is recommended that draught pipes are cleaned at least once every two weeks. Without a regular cleaning regimen, beer residue will build up in the pipes and cause future pours to taste off. An experienced barfly can identify a pub with dirty draught pipes on the first sip of beer.
The other downside to draught kegs is that they are really only suitable in licensed establishments. Few consumers are prepared to install a draught pipe system in their home, making draught beer a product that is enjoyed exclusively when out on the town.
Which Beer Packaging is Best?
The best packaging is dependent upon the consumer’s personal preference and needs at the time. Bottles are pretty to look at, and if the beer has been well handled in transport and is being consumed shortly after bottling, the concerns around light and oxygen impacting the beer’s freshness can be mitigated. Cans tout many benefits. They are both airtight and “light-tight.” They are inexpensive, lightweight for transport, easy to recycle, and they chill quickly. However, the image of the classless drinker may be challenging for some consumers to give up easily. Draught kegs are fun and maintain freshness, but pipes must be cleaned regularly to ensure the integrity of the beer is maintained.
Choose the packaging that suits you best in the moment. At the end of the day, as long as you’re choosing craft beer from one of Niagara’s microbreweries, you really can’t go wrong!
By: Michael Twyman, Sommelier and Wine Smart Guide for Niagara Vintage Wine Tours and Bootleggers.