When it comes to craft beer at the retail level, you have a choice between bottles and cans. There’s a time and place for each.
For camping, boating and picnics, cans are a better way to go. They’re easy to pack, they don’t break and you can crush them when you’re ready to pack up or pack out.
For parties or regular drinking at home, bottles are a viable option. The 22-ounce bottle, also known as a bomber, has become the industry standard and is the format with the largest selection.
But what you may not know is that practically every brewer concerned about quality control secretly – or not so secretly – would rather be in cans. In fact, the entire craft beer industry is heading toward cans. The sticking point largely comes down to price.
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“It’s a vastly superior package,” said Quinn Gardner, co-founder of Sactown Union, the new brewery in east Sacramento. “Your four enemies of beer are light, age, heat and oxygen.”
Cans, of course, don’t let in any light. The standard brown-hued bottle keeps out UV rays, but it doesn’t prevent all light. Gardner said pop-off caps let in 80 percent less air than twist-offs on bottles, but cans are completely sealed and ingress is not an issue.
“Cans are more portable. They get colder faster. You can go more places with cans. If you’re going rafting on the American River, you’re not going to take bottles,” Gardner said.
Then there’s the stigma with cans. For years, we’ve associated canned beer with the cheap stuff – those bland macro lagers you chug after mowing the lawn.
That is largely in the past when it comes to the serious craft beer geeks. They know all about quality control and environmental issues and have largely embraced cans.
But mainstream consumers might still think cans are not for premium beer and that canned beer has a metallic taste. Gardner said the best way to deal with skeptics is to do a blind taste test.
“Try it in a can and in a bottle, and taste them side by side in blank glasses. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” he said.
In Sacramento and in the Bay Area, many new breweries get into canning by outsourcing, often with The Can Van, a mobile canning company that sets up shop inside the brewery, cans the beer and then packs up and leaves.
Sactown Union is projected to start canning its beer sometime in the next six months. The brewery has no plans to sell its beer in bottles.
But even though cans have made a major push into craft beer in recent years, bottles are still the most common packaging format. Much of that comes down to tradition and price.
Device Brewing Co. in Sacramento bottles three of its beers, including its flagship Integral India pale ale. But owner/brewmaster Ken Anthony knows cans are the future.
“Putting a label on a glass bottle is industry standard. When you go into a store, seeing a label around a glass bottle is very familiar to consumers,” Anthony said.
But to have labels printed directly onto cans, a brewery has to make a major commitment, placing an initial order that costs $45,000 or more. For a fledgling brewery, that is a significant financial hurdle and a logistical challenge – those cans needs to be stored in a warehouse.
“If you don’t own a canning line, then you’ve got to pay a mobile canner to come out,” Anthony said. “When all is said and done, the cost per unit is higher with cans and, because you’re selling in a multi-unit format, the price per ounce is lower.”
In other words, the profit margins are smaller with cans, and the only way for them to make sense is with high-volume sales – sell more cans at a smaller profit.
“We would love nothing more than to offer several of our products in six-pack cans because we see that the craft beer consumer has embraced cans,” Anthony said. “The fact of the matter is the can is better for the beer.”
Asked what craft brewery packaging will look like in five years, Anthony said, “If breweries want to remain competitive and relevant, they will have to do cans. It’s the wave of the future.”
Until that future arrives, the options are surprisingly limited. The vast majority of the nation’s best craft beer for sale at retail level is offered in bottles, followed by a tiny but rapidly growing inventory of cans.