Oskar Blues' cannery row. Photo: Ryan Dearth
By Will McGough, Wake and Wander
Growing up outside of Philadelphia, it was never much of a decision. There were no mountains to climb. We lived the city life and my upbringing was simple: Good beer came in a bottle, crap came in a can.
Flash forward a few years and I'm pacing the beer aisle in a store near the Front Range of the Rockies, my fingers still greasy from prepping my bike chain. Now immersed in an arena of outdoor activity, my priorities have changed—biking and bottles and backpacks certainly don’t mix. Ten years ago, this would have meant inappropriately pairing a light canned beer with a crisp, fall ride through the foliage. Today, I’m happy to say, we finally have options. Lots of them.
Bottles have long ruled the craft brew scene in the United States. But that's changing, largely thanks to Dale Katechis, founder of Longmont, Colorado-based brewery Oskar Blues.
"I won’t call out anyone in particular, but they were all pointing and laughing at the new kid in town," says Katechis, recollecting the reaction he received when he began canning his hoppy pale ale back in 2002. "They thought it was a joke, yet today they’re all canning beer.... Talk about funny."
That hilariously hoppy brew is Dale’s Pale Ale, a drink that has been widely praised by beer experts and easily recognized in stores across the United States in its red, white, and blue can. It’s true: Oskar Blues was indeed the pioneer of the U.S. craft beer canning movement. As it approaches its 10-year “CANniversary” in November, Osker Blues is now one of more than 220 American breweries that have followed suit, according to Craftcans.com.
When it comes to gear, from backpacks to tents to bikes to shoes, weight matters. Whether heading into the backcountry or on a leisurely day hike, no one wants to lug an ounce more than is necessary. The same goes for adult beverage choices: cans are lighter, smaller, and easier to pack out than bottles. So cheers for the trend in canned craft beer.
But we're not the only winners. Cans also offer significant environmental benefits.
Replacing glass with aluminum cuts shipping costs by a third, according to Oskar Blues' research. Oskar Blues fits 100 cases of canned beer on a single pallet, where it could only put 60 cases of bottled beer. The weight of each loaded pallet is the same, but the significantly higher volume on a pallet of cans means transportation costs are lower, as are carbon emissions generated throughout the beer's supply chain.
"Glass is heavier," says Liz Shoch, senior manager of GreenBlue, a non-profit that equips businesses with the science and resources to make products more sustainable. "When you think about that in terms of transporting the materials, it takes a lot more fuel to ship bottles, and thus increases the amount of greenhouse gases that result during the shipping process."
Once the beer is packaged and shipped, the theoretical baton representing environmental responsibility is passed on to the consumer. Although the recyclability of the can and bottle both hover near 100 percent, statistics collected by the EPA show that aluminum is more likely to be recycled in the American household. In a 2010 study, beer and soda cans were found to be recycled at a rate of 49.6 percent, while glass containers were recycled 33.4 percent of the time. In the 2009 study, the rates were 50.7 percent for aluminum and 31.1 percent for glass.
Minal Mistry, also a senior manager at GreenBlue, believes the extra costs associated with the bottle will, at some point, lead the industry to begin taking the can more seriously. "At the end of the day it’s a business," he said, "And the lighter materials are going to eventually win out as transportation costs continue to increase."
As for the taste debate, Katechis thinks it’s only a matter of time before both the brewer and beer drinker see that the case for the bottle is now more brittle than ever. The old-school argument that the can alters the taste of the beer is one of his biggest gripes—something he has had to work very hard to overcome.
"Beer is brewed and stored in metal its entire life and it never sees sunlight until the brewer decides to put it in a bottle," says Katechis. "Think of the can as a mini-keg of beer. In the 10 years since we started canning, we've yet to hear one argument for the bottle other than tradition."
When you start looking at the facts, it becomes obvious that both the environment and the industry would benefit greatly from a correction of public perception. I wonder: Given all the other environmental movements happening across America, will consumers begin to take a stand on these issues alone? Will the fact that the can is more portable start to make sense to people?
At the summit of a trail in the foothills of the Rockies, I leaned against my mountain bike and reached for a beer in my backpack. Wiping the dirt from my bloody elbow and cracking open the still intact brew, tasting the rich, deep flavors of the pale ale, I officially declared the can as king.