The Debate Is On! Which Is Better: Cans Or Bottles?

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By Donovan Wheeler for Indiana On Tap

At 10:01 every day, my grandpa would open the fridge in the shop and grab his first Lite Beer of the day.  My old man recently told me that he was the one who planted the 10:00 idea Grandpa’s head.  Somewhere…somehow, Dad had heard that you weren’t technically an alcoholic if you at least waited until then to get your day going.  Knowing that his newfound factoid would crawl into Grandpa’s noggin and get stuck there, Dad happily passed it along.

The subsequent mental images of Grandpa hovering by that fridge at 9:56, trying like hell to appear casual, willing his eyes away from the clock, remain epic.  Grandpa passed away before Miller rebranded their white “Lite Beer, from Miller” cans into those royal blue “Miller Lite” dial-downs, and that’s why for years, when he would open that full-sized family model refrigerator, the only thing I would see through the crack of the opened door were the stacks of those white cans, packed from the meat drawer in the bottom to the little light bulb under the freezer.

For me, those beer cans stood as the ultimate symbols of mass-produced beer at the height of its empire.  Arranged in streamlined rows, stacked on top of one another, those uninspiring, bland automatons robotically waited for their orders.  Their contents every bit as vanilla as their containers, they were functional and they were serviceable.  And that’s about all that they were.  I have never evaluated why, but when I made the occasional, casual beer a part of my adult identity, I opted for the bottle instead.  At first I rarely drank, and even then only at bars.  Even when I switched from the Big-Three brews—first to imports, then to national crafts, then to local beers—I never gave much thought to the fact that I was always grabbing bottles over cans.

Now that cans have become the container du jour of the craft beer industry, however, I’ve noticed my preference.  And as one brewery after another opts to dump their liquid masterpieces into those cylindrical metal sleeves I find myself turning even more fiercely, more doggedly to the brews still housed in narrow little trinkets of dark brown glass.  In their honor, I offer these reasons why the bottle must not die:

1. The Feel
When I hold a bottle, I experience a tactile comfort from the feel of the thick brown glass tucked against the pad of flesh at the base of the thumb and the rolling curl of the first three fingers as they round the bottle’s shoulder and point down to the bottom.  If I want to hold my bottle by its trunk while sitting at the bar with my fiancé, I can roll my fingers along the sides as it rests in front of me. When I’m standing by the pool table, or out on my deck at home, I can dangle it by the neck with my thumb and middle finger, sometimes gently swaying it as I stare past my back yard across the bean field marking the end of our subdivision.  With a can, the best maneuver I can hope for is a semi-casual use of what I call “Lego Hands.”  You can try to dangle a can, but it always figures out how slip free of a couple fingers. And casually lolling your fingers along its side while sitting at the bar??? Forget it.

2. Contact
One of the most profound observations about the can-craze in the craft beer community has been the “180” which many people have pulled when it comes to the taste of suds rolling across the lip of the container.  Forever, beer purists (read: snobs) have repeatedly claimed that beer out of can tasted funny.  And for almost as long beer experts (read: knowledgeable beer snobs) have claimed that beer is good, but it’s the can which creates the odd taste.  Pour that can of beer into a glass, they say, and it tastes great.  From the beginning of my beer days, I have noticed this phenomenon.  In my Lite Beer days, Miller was slightly less crappy out of a bottle.  And while I understand why Florida’s Cigar City cans their beers (hint: beaches are everywhere down there), only their Jai-Ali seems to stunt the metallic buzzkill which seems to flatten everything else flowing out of a can.  As I’m sure Shakespeare must have said: “The brew is better when the glass is there,” (no thys, -iths, or anons…just clean iambic pentameter, there).

3. Temperature properties
Cans warm up more quickly.  Glass doesn’t.  Moving on…


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Image courtesy of http://blog.comacgroup.com/
4. Packaging and Artwork
When I decided I was done with Miller, I walked into my local liquor store with absolutely no idea what I wanted to buy.  I just knew that I wanted something which I had never watched my dad or my grandpa (or any of my Bud/Miller/Coors friends) drinking.  A few weeks before I made this decision, a buddy of mine had introduced me to Smithwicks (it’s not “Smith-wicks,” by the way), and since I really liked it, I thought I might go that route.  Then I started checking out all the six-pack boxes.

That’s right…I started with the artwork.

People who only care about the taste of craft beer miss the point of craft beer.  It’s a culture, a lifestyle, an experience.  Part of that experience is the artwork.  Some time ago, I wrote about the effect that Barley Island’s image of Dirty Helen had on me:

“An illustrated Helen, her bare shoulder askew floods the right half of the box.  Her eyes seductively peer at us from under her wide-brimmed, Prohibition-era Cloche hat.  Her bobbed haircut exposes more of her shoulders than any self-respecting woman of Gatsby’s era would stand for, covered only by small spaghetti straps leading to a swimsuit? A bra? A summer dress?  Whatever Helen’s wearing, the church deacons will be sure to talk about it before Sunday.”

I still buy a lot of it, but even on the trips when I do not, I stop and check out the entire Barley Island arsenal on display.  Artistically alone the boxes could sell out at an art gallery.  And while I’m mostly cool with Upland’s artistic rebranding, I still have fond memories of the original Bad Elmer giving me the eye on that carton of porter:

“I don’t know who the fellow is who posed for that label (the masterpiece original label, not the cartoon character they have on the bottle now), but I look at him, with that shotgun across his lap and that “F*** you!” look in his eye, and I’m glad he’s with me on my last day before I take this journey.”

While it is true that some canned beer comes in artistically pleasing boxes, most of it is lumped together under the oppressive grasp of those colorful plastic ring-caps.  When I pick up a pack of cans, I don’t feel like I’m embracing a proud, eclectic, and artistic culture.  I feel like I’m grabbing a colorful version of Bud.

5. The Four-Pack Rip Off
If all of the previous arguments seems to rest too heavily in the Ethos and Pathos wings of Aristotelian theory, then let me end with this bit of Logos.  In Indiana, the breweries who can are selling four 16-ounce cans for about the same price (often more) than what I would pay for six 12-ounce bottles.  Four times 16 equates to 64 ounces of beer…a growler.  But six times twelve tabulates to 72 ounces…a growler, and another half-pint.  At my local liquor store I’m tempted to buy those cans of red or Scottish ales, but I don’t thanks to one raw emotion I inherited from my dad and his: resentment.  You want me to pay you for the half-pint that you’re not going to give to me??? No thanks.

I realize that I’m fighting both science and logic.  Cans reduce exposure to light.  Cans seal better and preserve the beer more efficiently.  Blah! Blah! Blah!  I know this is probably a losing cause, and I accept that cans are going to one day dominate the craft beer scene.  But if the craft beer culture is so willing to accept the same holster which “the man” uses, then I sometimes wonder if there will even be a craft beer scene at all when all the bottles are dust (no…I’m not above stooping to a bit of ignominious hyperbole).


 
 

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