I stand there, hair stood upright in the cool. I am confused.
There, before me, is a horde of Sirens, beckoning for me to drink in their subtle sweetness.
I am in the of-Age Wonderland (i.e. the unbelievably well-stocked microbrew section of my corner store), but I am at a loss. There are so many choices to be made: Lager vs Stout; IPA vs Amber, et cetera. And now, in my efforts to decrease my ecological footprint, I have a new conundrum: Canned vs Bottled.
There are two classes of argument over whether beer should be bottled or canned: (1) the environmental impacts and (2) the effect it has on taste. The discrepancy between the two containers may surprise you.
Beer is packaged either in bottle (glass) or can (aluminum or tin). In the United States, almost all beverage cans are made from aluminum alloys. Glass is manufactured from silica (sand), which is much more accessible than aluminum.
Aluminum is principally derived from bauxite, an ore mined imported to the US from Jamaica (31% of total import); Guinea (22%); Brazil (19%), or recycled cans. As you can imagine, recycled aluminum has a significantly lower impact (USGS).
If we only consider the production of bottles and cans from virgin material (non-recycled), manufacturing requires 2.07 kilowatt hours of electricity for the can vs. 1.09 kilowatt hours for the bottle (National Geographic).
But, thanks to government and private recycling programs, no bottle or can is made from only virgin materials. An average beer can is 40% recycled, whereas the average beer bottle is 20-30%. This still leaves glass bottles with significantly less environmental impacts.
The aspect where the type of container really screws the hooch is weight. Beer is brewed across the country or, if you’re lucky, across town at a brewery. The transportation of domestic and microbrew is overland, done by truck across America’s beautiful freeway system. Increased weight on these journeys increases gasoline consumption, which in turn increases net greenhouse gas emissions. Empty beer cans weigh less than an ounce, where as empty bottles are roughly six ounces. A study done using Germany’s Wuppertal Institute transport data found that glass bottles net more greenhouse emissions if traveling over 2000 miles.
In conclusion to this section:
Enjoy your local beers in the bottle
Enjoy your domestic beers in the can (or don’t drink that swill)
Recycle your bottles and cans
Research your nearby breweries to see their sustainability efforts – Great Examples: Hopworks and Sierra Nevada
Impacts on Taste:
This is a very personal issue. Personal to me and I’ll bet personal to you. I have always associated canned beer with domestic swill (PBR, Hamms, etc.); the stuff I drank before I grew up and embraced the bottle. Now suddenly, microbreweries, such as New Belgium, are starting to sport canned beers.
Honestly, I can’t tell the difference.
I know that cans protect the beer (i.e. the taste) from light and air than bottles, and that I don’t have to scan around for a bottle opener. But it really just comes down to the beer, not its vehicle for imbibing.