Monday, April 2, 2012

Canundrum - Part 1: Domestic Dispute

Oskar Greens?
I've been on a can kick, lately—Oskar Blues' Dale's Pale Ale, Bomb Lager, Butternutts Beer & Ale's Snapperhead IPA, and Sixpoint Craft Ale's Bengali Tiger—all canned, and all tasty. But, this aluminum infusion got me thinking.  How much of a noticeable difference is there between bottled and canned beer? Sure, we've all heard the arguments that canning is cheaper and keeps out both light and oxygen better than bottles, and I'm not arguing that, but I want to know if I can actually tell that by tasting it. I've had canned beers and I've had bottled beers, I've even had the same beer, both bottled and canned. What I haven't had is a bottle and a can of the same beer at the same time.

I feel an experiment, brewing (brewing, get it?)

The beers I mentioned earlier are all canned only brews—no bottling from those guys—so as great as they are, they're off the table. What I need is four separate breweries that both bottle and can their beer—a domestic ale maker, an overseas ale producer, a domestic lager producer and and an import lager brewery—a beery tale told in four parts, if you will. Each beery scenario produces a variety of possible or shall I say, road bumps to each producer—time, temperature fluctuations and light exposure, so I' should be able to cover all the bases.

For part one, let's start with the American made ale—and thanks to Sierra Nevada adding cans to their packaging capabilities, the choice was easy—Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. As a side note, I do have to say I think it's notable that SN has gotten into the can biz. They are by far the largest craft brewery to do so as of yet, so all of those naysayers who have written off the can to this point, watch-out, because the canned die has been cast.

The test is simple. Drink the bottled version, then drink the canned version, and compare the two. In order to keep things on the up-and-up, both beers were poured into and drank from the same pint glass, after a quick wash between samplings. This wasn't going to be your generic tasting, either—no deep examinations of flavor profiles or body or any of those other pretentious things we beer geeks like to do. For this exercise I didn't care what the beer tasted like, just if there was a difference between the two.

Obviously both beers looked exactly the same—bright, golden-copper with a thin, yet creamy, head. Both were crisp and cold with a pronounced American hoppiness and a powerful but not overpowering bitterness. By all accounts I was drinking the same beer—but I wasn't. Even with all those factors being the same, something was off. I knew exactly what it was when I popped the tab on the canned version—the aroma. The canned version somehow lacked the smelly oomph of the bottle. Even after pouring it into the pint glass, it still lacked that pungent wallop in the sniffer. The canned SN seemed subtler and more mellow than the bottled version. Was the canned version more subdued because I didn't get that hoppy smell? Does the head space in the bottle help to somehow capture the hoppy aroma?  I don't know, but I do know the canned version was missing it—for sure.

So, for those of you keeping score, I'm going with yes there is a noticeable difference between Sierra Nevada Pale Ale canned and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale bottled. I'm not going to draw any conclusions at this point—the whole point of this is to see how a variety of beer perform against each other, So, for now I'll just keep it as a yes and we'll see how everything goes in a few weeks. Next go round we'll see how an imported ale fares, under the same circumstances. 


  1. I liked this post. It sets my mind to wondering.

    I have long held a untested belief that the keg [draught] version of a beer is better than the same beer bottled. With growler fills, this would not be too hard to test. Someday I well.

    To your conclusion that: the bottled version of a beer is better than the same beer canned.
    To ascertain if everyone could test this,
    I used the Brewers association list of the Top 50 Craft Brewers [by volume produced, 2011] and the online database. Excluding the all canned Oskar Blues, I found 14 of the top 50 Craft breweries produce 46 beers; albeit, I am not yet sure all 46 have bottled version. I will answer that question later.

    Regardless of the answer, it should not be hard to find test cases. I will undertake to do so.

    However, my test method differs from your stated test; Ie, I like to compare beers in an repetitive side by side, sippy test. Ie, I open two [or more] beer; pour about 7 ozs of each beer in a glasses; then sample back and forth between the beers, moving the preferred beer to the left. My son and I tested five Oregon pilsner once; it was good fun and established the tops slots in my Pilsner Leaderboard.

    On a related note, in a recent post, Thursday, 29 Mar 2012, 'Retro Gone Too Far', Jeff Alworth opined that craft breweries can because canning is cheaper than bottling and then argue to merits of cans v. bottles.
    Ie, the choice to can [v. bottle] is cost driven. In future, as the opportunity arises, I will ask brewery employees.

    It will be interesting to see if the new, East Coast, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium plants bottle.

  2. Jack, you are a man after my own heart.

  3. We tried a couple experiments similar to this on my show two years ago. First we did Young's Double Chocolate Stout bottle vs can. Since the can has a nitro widget like Guinness they were very different. I liked the bottled version way better. Although I've had that on tap and it's definitely the best version since both bottle and can taste like Guinness with a chocolate finish whereas the draught tasts chocolatey from start to finish.

    We also tried Old Speckled Hen bottle vs can. Again, the can was a nitro, so it was quite different. The bottle was clear so it was skunked, although I thought the bottle was actually better because there was a distinct sweetness to it that the can was missing. I've had it on draught and it's essentially the same as the can. But then I tried it at Castleton Mahar's on CASK and it was definitely the best presentation.

    Next time you have a few hours on a weekend (or weeknight), come by my house. We could do Magic Hat #9, Heineken, Saranac Pale Ale, etc.

    1. Well, I still have domestic lager, import lager and import ale to do. Maybe we can tag team on one of those!

  4. Dude,
    I performed my interactive sippy test with New Belgium Brewing Co.-Ranger IPA; one bottle and one can.

    The can was marked for use by June 2012. The marking on the bottle was illegible; but, the brewery is only 55 miles from the liquor store and the liquor store does a big volume; ergo, I take both to be fresh.

    Initially, I perceived a slight difference between the mouth feel of the canned and bottled beer; the canned beer seemed smoother, ya know, slightly maltier. I let the beers sit for ~half an hour and retested, at which time, I perceived less of a difference.

    I will select a pair of non-IPA and retest.

    btw, I quenched the thirsted I had developed from the testing with a NBBC - Shift Pale Lager. LiG

  5. I'd love to repeat that test—but New Belgium won't ship to New York!

  6. This too will pass. In a couple of years, New Belgium will be producing beer, mostly ales, near Asheville, NC.

    As I inquired over at /
    ? Would you be surprised if New Belgium_NC produced its mainstream beers only in cans? Ie, will NBBC_NC eschew 12 ounce bottles? But, alas, no reply from Dr. Patrick Emerson.

    But, Craig, consider
    - canning is allegedly cheaper and there are various consumer advantages
    - NBBC need canning for [16 ounce] Shift Pale Lager
    - NBBC need bottling for 22 ounce Lips of Faith and Special Release
    - NBBC really does not need to bottle their flagship beer.

    1. Yeah, I'm hoping the east coast move will make their stuff easier to get. New York and all it's taxes and bottling issues, doesn't help the situation either.

  7. Today I met with a nano-brew brewer, Tom Horst, Crystal Springs Brewing Co., 100 barrels in 2011. I asked ?why can?; ?Is it merely because it is cheaper?

    Tom said: It is cheaper; but, it is really about preserving the beer.

    I told him about my NBBC-Ranger IPA test. He said, buy two similar age beers, put the on the shelf for a month, and then conduct your sippy test. Tom believes, after 04-06 weeks, a bottled beer will exhibit degradation; a canned beer, not.

    I will give it a go.

  8. Yeah, the guys at New South in Myrtle Beach feel the same way. I spoke with Brock Kurtzman, New South's brewer, last year and he sited preservation as one of the main reasons they went the canning route.

    I'm really interested to see the effects on the imports. With all the temperature fluctuations and light exposure, it should be interesting—I just have to find the right beer!

  9. I reckon there are a couple of topics here worthy of future post.
    - Cans v. Bottles
    - Beer Handling or Beer Abuse.

    My wife and I stopped at a nationally known Colorado brewery last month for a late lunch. It was a bright, warm, beautiful Colorado Summers Day . . . in later March.

    We sat outside at a table with umbrellas. I could not help but notice two pallet of plastic wrapped, dark cardboard cases of ale [also] basking in the sun. Can't be a good thing for the beer.

  10. I reckon your right, Jack—and that brewery ought to know better than that.

  11. Another can v. bottle test; New Belgium Sunshire Wheat Ale. Both reported 'Best before 01 July 2012'.

    Not much taste to work with. A Colorado Front Range Americanized witbier. Regardless, as before: I preferred the canned beer. My wife did too.

    I like the mouth feel better; I take it to be more malty; perhaps not, I do not claim to be a qualified beer judge.

    The NBBC website reports tastes/aromas: coriander and orange peel tartness wit apple and honey tones. My strongest impression was peppery.

    A Google search associates peppery more with NBBC Mothership Wit Organic Wheat Ale.

    I have two more can/bottle pairs to test. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Boulder Beer Co. Hazed and Confused Dry-Hopped Pale Ale.

  12. I performed my interactive sippy test with Boulder Beer-Hazed and Confused, unfiltered, dry-hopped [Crystal and Centennial] amber ale; one bottle and one can.

    The bottle was marked for use by 07 June 2012. There was not marking on the can; but, the brewery is only 2.5 miles from the liquor store and the liquor store does a big volume; ergo, I take both to be fresh.

    Again, third time, I perceived a slight difference between the mouth feel of the canned and bottled beer; the canned beer seemed smoother, ya know, slightly maltier.

    Bottom line: 3 for 3, I perfer the canned beer over the bottled beer.

  13. I performed my interactive sippy test with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale; one bottle and one can.

    The bottle was packaged 53 days ago; the can, 58 days. Both nominal 08 weeks plus/minus epsilon before consumed.

    Again, after about half an hour the difference seemed diminished.

    For the fourth time, I perceived a difference between the mouth feel of the canned and bottled beer; the canned beer seemed smoother, richer, maltier.

    Interestingly, to me, 08 weeks age produced no noticeable degradation in the bottled v. canned beer, to me.

    Bottom line: 4 for 4, I perfer the canned beer over the bottled beer.