Cans vs Bottles
Star Wars vs Star Trek, Britney vs Christina – some of the most iconic debates of all time, except for perhaps a beer drinker's biggest question – cans or bottles? Are we really questioning the merits of canned beer? In 2019? The answer is yes, as it's still something here at Fine Wine Delivery Co. we still get asked nearly every day. So, I thought it was about time to set the record straight and nut out the pros and cons for each side.
It is generally the older generation of beer drinkers that prefer their bottles; it al goes back to the good ol' days where drinking Lion Red out of a can was practically like dinking liquid metal (or so I've been told). Hence, drinking beer from a can went out of fashion circa 1980s, but if they can bring back high waisted jeans then we can bring back the can and it certainly is back and better than ever. On the other side of things, millennials seem to have garnered an all-out hatred for all things bottled beer - so you may find yourself wondering, what really is better?
When it comes to light, there's no doubt cans come out on top. Exposure to light is a beer's worst nightmare, acids in the beer react with sulphur compounds in UV rays, giving beer a “skunky” taste. In terms of bottles, brown far outweighs the green bottles. I often tell people, if your beer is in a green or clear bottle, then the brewery mustn't have too much concern for the quality of their beer. Light strike is such a potent compound that even parts-per-trillion can be detected and potentially ruin a beer. Clear bottled beer can become light-struck in less than a minute, so if you've ever had a bit of a weird tasting corona – now you know why! Light can't penetrate aluminium, giving cans a big advantage in terms of freshness and taste.
When you think of beer's worst enemy, number one would be oxygen. Any contact with oxygen will affect a beer, and the more contact it has with it, the lesser the quality of the beer. Cans are better than bottles at keeping out all the oxygen – the design of the cans forms an airtight seal with none of the headspace that bottled beer must contend with. That residual oxygen stales your beer faster. Ever crack a beer, nod off and then taste it the next day? Yup, it sure aint pretty.
Then we get to the might issue of heat. Once the final product is created, there are now no, or few, molecules active in the beer, and it is in a state where it will start to degrade over time. Heat accelerates this chemical reaction, which simply means in warmer conditions, the beer will age faster. This is one of the biggest issues with beer, and why you should never shop for your beer somewhere that stores their stock ambient if you can help it. With heat, cans offer less protection than bottles – glass is a much better insulator than aluminium, so if you shamefully leave your beer in a hot car, canned beer will cook much faster than bottled. But, if you're trying to keep your beer cooler for longer, your cans will come out on top here too.
Can critics swear aluminium packaging leaves a bad taste, literally. However, all cans are now lined and there's no chance of getting a metallic taste from the can (unless you feel the need to lick the outside of the can, that is!). Metallic tastes, however, can be the product of brewing faults such as water chemistry or improperly stored grains. In a range of blind tests across the world, canned craft brews have consistently had a slight edge over bottles. This doesn't surprise us – beer from the tap is best and effectively you're drinking out of a smaller version of a keg.
Technical elements aside, cans are simply more convenient and portability is where cans unquestionably outshine bottles. They're lightweight, easy to transport, stack nicely in your fridge, you can take the cans hiking or to that concert that doesn't allow glass, and as we will touch on, easy to recycle. Since cans cool faster than glass, you can have them outside at any event you like and they'll still stay cold. Whilst we'd never endorse behaviours such as the ole slip that can of pale ale into a koozie and sip away, it's certainly more subtle and marginally classier than the bottle and brown paper bag approach. No bottle opener required and crush for the ride home. Easy as mate.
The biggest debate is undoubtably the eco-friendly aspect of these carriers. Unlike plastic, aluminium and glass can be recycled again and again with no loss of quality. Of course, nothing ever is that simple. On the environmental side of things, there's two things to consider – the energy it takes to produce the can or bottle; and what happens to it once it's recycled. Aluminium is smelted from alumina, which is extracted from bauxite. It takes a huge amount of energy to smelt aluminium; the Rio Tinto smelter at Tiwai Point in Bluff uses 15% of all our electricity here in NZ. Glass is also made from natural resources: silica sand and limestone, but its production is simpler and uses less electricity than aluminium. Glass bottles made in New Zealand include around 60% recycled glass, which is one of the best ratio's in the world. However, once you take transport into account the glass disadvantage diminishes. They're heavier than aluminium and require a lot more fossil fuel to transport.
When we get to recycling, things aren't looking good for our glass mates. The public recycle about 55% of our glass containers in NZ, however that's more than double than what our Auckland processing plant can smelt. So, fair to say, if you're outside of Auckland your bottles are probably not being recycled. However, we do have a mobile crusher touring the country smashing through 12 tonnes of glass an hour for use as an aggregate in road and building materials, sand at golf courses and even as a mulch under grapevines. Recycled aluminium, however, is in hot demand. About 61% of our aluminium cans are recycled. They're shredded, melted and made into more cans – or fun things like cars. One tonne of recycled aluminium saves about five tonnes of bauxite and requires 95% less energy than making aluminium from virgin materials.
Bottom line, aluminium takes more energy to make, but less to transport and the empty cans have real value – plus, unlike bottles they're infinitely recyclable and they decrease the amount of mining and smelting required in the first place. Glass is much more energy-efficient to create, but it's heavy and fuel-intensive to transport, and much less valuable once empty. Our recommendations? Drink beer from a can and drink local but now your informed, you can make up your own opinion (or start forcing it on your green glass drinking mates). That being said, cans win out over bottles in nearly every category, so we'd make the call that cans are better. If you're still upset about that call… don't bottle up those feelings and test it yourself!