Bottles, Cans and Triangular Tests



Ah, at the end of a long day, there’s nothing like a cold can of craft beer.

A CAN of craft beer, you ask? In the relatively short history of craft beer, there’s been a certain stigma to cans. Think less expensive macro beer. Or beer with a metallic taste.

There was a time, back in the 1950’s or so, when cannned beers did sometimes develop a metallic off taste, but the linings used today have eliminated the problem. And cans offer advantages that bottles don’t. They weigh less, won’t break, don’t require a can opener and are easier to recycle than glass. All of which appeals to consumers who enjoy outdoor lifestyles, as do many craft beer drinkers.

The two most important reasons in favor of cans involve oxygen and light. While that headspace in bottled beer is filled with CO2, oxygen sometimes gets in depending on the crown liner. In contrast, cans are airtight and light can’t penetrate them.

Oskar Blues, which celebrated its fourth annual Burning Can ExtravaCANza festival in Lyons, Colorado last Saturday, May 30, is a leader in craft beer canning. The brewery, which only cans and kegs their beers, introduced a 16-ounce resealable screw-top can in 2012. A year and a half ago, in partnership with Ball Packaging, they debuted the Crowler, a table-top seaming machine that quickly fills and seals a 32-ounce can. The beer stays fresher longer than in a glass growler.

Jeff and David

Jeff and David

With the summer beer season ramping up, a bottle versus can test seemed to be in order. While I try to support local merchants, for this task, I needed a store with a large selection and fast turn-around times that would ensure fresher beer. I headed to BevMo!

In the craft beer section, I found an employee and explained what I wanted, saying style wasn’t a major factor. Jeff, with a full beard and three gauges in each ear lobe, walked a few feet to the 6-packs of Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. We barely dropped the two 6-packs in the cart, before he enthusiastically disappeared around the corner. There, we added two 6-packs of Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, and Jeff was off for the next samples when I announced my budget exhausted.

I asked Jeff if he could tell a difference between the same beer in a can versus a bottle. “Yeah, a can is a lot better.”

When I asked why, he proceeded to reel off most of the reasons given at the beginning of this post. “Everybody’s palate is different,” he said, “but a can is the closest you can get to a keg.” Spotting another employee nearby, he called out, “Hey, David, which is better for craft beer, cans or bottles?”

“Cans,” David answered in a definitive tone over the aisle separating us. We then had an abbreviated discussion similar to the one with Jeff.

At the register, RJ the cashier hadn’t been privy the earlier conversations, so I asked her opinion. “Cans,” she replied in a way that indicated no contest.

“Why is that?”

“Because the beer can’t oxidize in a can like it does in bottles.” How many cashiers in chain stores can give such knowlegeable answers about the merchandise?

Amber ale test ready

Amber ale test ready

Back at home, my husband Hugo, who participated in daily taste panels at Coors for over two decades, set up a triangular taste test. He randomly numbered three identical, clean glasses and poured the amber ale, two from the bottle or can, with the third being different. He called me in and my task was to write 1) which one was different from the other two and 2) which did I prefer? I wiped off my lip balm and went to work, sipping water and nibbling a plain, low-sodium cracker between samples.

You can see my results in the photo to the left below. I waffled, choosing 392 for both, then changing to 123. The answers were: 674-can, 392-bottle, 123-can. Humbled, I took my time with the IPA. Finally: Different-422, Prefer-814/701 (=same). The answers: 422-can, 814-can, 701-bottle.

Amber ale test notes

Amber ale test notes

Always an encouraging guy, Hugo attributed the fact that I was unable to tell the difference to how close the two batches were, and due to the freshness of both beers. So, as a brewer, he happily declared my decisions a victory for both breweries.

His explanation made me feel a little better, but tomorrow, we’re repeating the test. The most interesting thing I took from the test is how much the perception of bottles versus cans for craft beer is changing among knowledgeable consumers. The next time you want to have some fun with your friends, give them a triangular test.

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