We Are Apparently In The Midst Of A Canned Beer Renaissance

In my youth, canned beer was king, though there was the one guy on the block whose recycling buckets were always overflowing with empty Rolling Rock bottles. But then came the craft beer revolution of the ’90s and slowly but surely cans gave way to bottles and draft beer. For seven years starting in 2002, bottled and draft beers equaled or outpaced the canned stuff in the U.S., but ever since the economy took a nose dive, a growing number of Americans have been cracking open cold cans for their beer-based refreshment.

Using numbers from the U.S. Beer Institute (which keeps turning down my application for a research fellowship), Bloomberg News charted the battle of the bottle for the last three decades.

Canned beer consumption reached its peak in 1991, with bottled and draft beers having remained essentially flat at around 35%.

But in only four years, the slew of new, small, independent brewers resulted in a nearly 10% surge in the drinking of bottled and draft beer, while canned beer took a 7% nosedive during the same time period from 1991 to 1995.

These opposing trends continued for more than a decade, with the two lines intersecting in 2002. After that, bottles and kegs dominated the market, while hipsters kept the canned beer market alive by ironically drinking the cheap beer that had been treated with disregard since the mid-90s.

Then the economy skunked in 2008, and suddenly people began opting for cans once more. That year, the two categories were once again equal, and since 2009 canned beer has become the majority choice.

Last year, canned beer was back up to 53% of the market, the same percentage it enjoyed back in 1981.

“I might not be able to take vacations and spend money on big-priced items,” says Charlie Papazian, president of the Brewers Association, tells Bloomberg about consumers’ current mindset. “Beer has a much better return or value.”

He says that the recession has seen people turning to both “below-premium budget beers and the high-end craft beers.”

Also, some higher-end brewers have begun putting their product in cans, which have historically been frowned upon by beer snobs.

However, per the Beer Institute, suds sipping in general is down about 7% since 2007, with the average American [adult, we assume] drinking 162 pints of beer in 2011.

Slump Makes U.S. Beer Drinkers Reach for Cans: Chart of the Day [Bloomberg]

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  1. josephbloseph says:

    When I interviewed for a job at the Harpoon Brewery, they indicated that there had been advances in the canning process and can design to eliminate that “metal can taste”, and that they were starting with their popular summer beer styles because there are some parks and water locations that allow beer in cans, but not bottles.

    • BongoBilly says:

      Joseph is correct. The new cans have liners that make he beer taste like it should. Also good for imports that are succeptible to being light-struck – where bottled beer can taste ‘skunky’ when exposed to light.

    • eccsame says:

      I notice the skunky taste on beers with green bottles or that are brewed in Eastern Europe. I think it has something to do with Saaz hops. Or I could be wrong.

      • josephbloseph says:

        I do know some breweries that use brown bottles point to green bottles as letting in more light. Some even go to lengths as selling high-walled 6-pack boxes for their bottles to block even more light. Personally, I prefer to buy glass bottles, because when they are empty, I can fill them with home brewed beer.

      • Maltboy wanders aimlessly through the Uncanny Valley says:

        It’s caused by a photochemical reaction of isohumulones (from hops). Sunlight and fluorescent light contain wavelengths that cleave a bond in the acid, creating free radicals that reform into a thiol with aroma properties similar to skunk stank. Brown glass filters this light out. Miller uses chemically stabilized hop extract, so they get away with using clear bottles.

        • dangermike says:

          Miller gets away with clear glass because that starts out as bad as theirs doesn’t really suffer even if it does skunk.

          Now New Castle… I wish they would consider brown bottles. It’s a universally passable brand (thought I’d take Moose Drool or Anchor Steam over it any day if light brown ale is what I’m after) but it rarely makes to a west coast point of sale without negatively aging. And their cans are WAY overpriced when you find them here.

          • dangermike says:

            /because beer that starts out that bad/

            oopsie.

          • BurtReynolds says:

            Yeah buying Newcastle can be a gamble. You have to make sure you go to a store that sells enough of it that it doesn’t sit around very long. Same with Stella.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      Canned beer is very handy when boating — If you stick it in a koozie, it looks enough like soda that it wont draw attention from Army Corps or DNR officials who are scoping you out with binoculars. Many pools around here also have very strict no glass policies, so you’re pretty much relegated to drinking from cans.

  2. Gravitational Eddy says:

    It’s because of the fact no retailer wants to deal with the higher cost of glass.
    Those aluminum cans are being recycled way more than the glass.
    Also, smaller restaurants are serving cans instead of bottles because they can hold/keep more stock in the cooler,
    I’ve asked about this and that’s what the restaurant mgr told me….

    • RandomHookup says:

      Bottle recycling is more of a headache as well. I had an industry professional tell me that recyclers get more for a mixed load of materials if there are no bottles in the mix. Bottles break and it’s almost impossible to get rid of the sand/grit that creates.

  3. AtlantaCPA says:

    Several good breweries are or are about to use cans over bottles: Oscar Blues (already in cans), New Belgium (about to move to cans). With the new cans the beer tastes as it should, without getting skunked! (since as we all know skunking has virtually nothing to do with temperature and is all about light)

    I thought this article was going to talk about that more and less about the low-end stuff.

    • Murph1908 says:

      mmm. New Belgium.

    • Maltboy wanders aimlessly through the Uncanny Valley says:

      We’ve been gettting “can conditioned” Fat Tire in Texas for over a year.

      • Silverhawk says:

        Yep, same here. Been getting Fat Tire and also SNPA in cans for a while now. I hope Sierra Nevada starts doing more of their beers in cans.

      • AtlantaCPA says:

        No fair, not here yet.

        • Maltboy wanders aimlessly through the Uncanny Valley says:

          I think it’s noticeably sweeter and fuller than the bottled version. I wonder if it’s due to the extra sugar (or wort) they add to the cans for conditioning purposes. I don’t believe they condition their bottled version.

  4. AgostoBehemoth says:

    I buy my beer in bottles. Just like it like that. I won’t turn down beer in a can… but only buy bottles.

    • peshgel says:

      You’ll be missing out on some awesome brews that can exclusively.. Surly Brewing has a great slogan specifically for this: “Beer for a glass. From a can.”

    • Tombo says:

      I’m just the opposite. I’ve been drinking out of a can since I got sick of lugging out a bag full of noisy, clanky, heavy bottles to the curb. Bottled American beer also tastes funky to me.

      Cans also are much easier to store and lug around. You can bring cans where you can’t bring bottles (like the beach). You can’t shotgun a bottle. You can dump a case full of cans in a cooler without worrying about them breaking. Cans make better ashtrays. If you drop a can on a tile floor, it has a better chance of surviving. A coozie for a can is way easier to operate than a coozie for a bottle. Cans stack with our without the box. A can’s opener stays attached. Cans are easily squishable after use for the trash. Cans are way easier to get out of the box. You can cook a chicken with a can. You can use a can for target practice without booby trapping your land with glass shards. You can throw empty cans at your friends without them needing immediate medical attention. You can demonstrate the effectiveness of the Gin-Su knife with a can. The wide mouth cans work pretty well.

  5. vliam says:

    with the average American [adult, we assume] drinking 162 pints of beer in 2011.

    I’m finally above average in something.

  6. roshambo says:

    Sixpoint, Oskar Blues, New Belgium, 21st Amendment, Sierra Nevada, Alchemist, Half Acre, Goose Island etc. All are craft brewers that have either canned almost exclusively or have recently expanded their line ups to included canned beer as well as the bottles. While the economy I’m sure has contributed to some people buying more of the cheap canned stuff, I think the craft beer industry moving to cans being acceptable will be the big push that will continue this movement. While beer consumption over all is declined, the consumption of craft beer I believe is growing by double digits each year. The more craft beer grows and the more they end up canning, the larger the canning % will become. There is some really great beer in cans right now.

    • roshambo says:

      I suppose Goose Island is no longer considered a craft brewer now that they are owned by AB.

    • some.nerd says:

      OMG GUYS HEADY TOPPER

      …tastes *almost* as good as 21st Amendment’s “Hop Crisis.” Too bad it was only a one-off… ;)

      • belsonc says:

        Except for the fact it’s not a one off. :-)

        You can get the beer in the area of the cannery, and VERY occasionally will shipments of it make their way to surrounding areas…

        • roshambo says:

          They make heady topper all the time. Just small distribution. Beer trades solve that problem though. I personally think it’s better than hop crisis. If your referring to hop crisis as being the one off, it has been a while since its been released.

      • PatrickPortland says:

        I went there while in the area for a wedding over the weekend… rolled into the parking lot at 11am on Sunday, thinking I’d be the first one in the door – nope, passed two people on their way out with a case of 4-packs each.

        One little sample and I left with a load of my own, too!

  7. peshgel says:

    Sure the cheaper beer is usually in cans and there are a lot of economic trends that you can correlate with their purchase.. but there are many reasons that cans can be better than bottles for the craft/ microbrews.. some have been mentioned in other comments so sorry for the repeats
    -avoids light exposure (brown bottles are Ok at this, green/ clear ones are awful)
    -easier to recycle
    -easier to ship
    -allowed in parks/ beaches/ etc.
    -many of the craft breweries use 16oz cans instead of 12oz.. more delicious beer!

    Surly, a local (and amazing) MN brewery has always been canned and kegged, no bottles. New Belgium has started moving to cans as well.. yeah it might be ‘less classy’, but so are the screw-top wine bottles..

    The only real downside is for the homebrewing community – outside of kegging, you have to bottle, and reusing bottles from consumed beer will obviously help cut the costs of homebrews.

  8. foodfeed says:

    Lately I’ve been drinking a lot of Surly and 21st Amendment. Good beer in cans that is easy to camp with.

  9. mikedt says:

    I make my own beer at home.

    (finally an article where I can honestly say that.)

  10. Fuzzy_duffel_bag says:

    There is at least a chucking the empty cans out the window renaissance on my street. People litter like it’s the 70s. Largely some kind of Michelob that has a can that makes me think it’s CVS brand cola.

  11. sirwired says:

    The “canned taste” hasn’t been a problem for decade or two. The only reason bottled beer remains the “higher-end” choice is perception and inertia.

    Well, that, and bottles keep beer cool marginally longer.

    • AtlantaCPA says:

      “Well, that, and bottles keep beer cool marginally longer.” – True, but the way I drink that isn’t a huge issue. The real issue is that bottles take longer to cool down when you restock the cooler!

  12. AustinTXProgrammer says:

    I really good brewery next door to my office only does cans. They claim it produces a better product.

    As long as you pour it in glass to drink, I think they are right.

  13. central_ny_dude says:

    In my area, all the specialty brewers use bottles. One of the reasons behind bottles, is heat transfer. Glass is a better insulator than aluminum. Keeps cold longer. And if you aren’t chugging a beer, holding a glass bottle = less heat transfer from your hand to the beer. With a can, you’re basically warming your beer through the heat transfer from your hand. That’s typically the reason behind specialty brewers using glass. You are supposed to sip the beer and enjoy it, rather than chug it. And sipping warm beer is nasty.

  14. Miss Dev (The Beer Sherpa) says:

    Beer’s worst enemies are poor sanitation, oxygen, and light. Bottles are easily sanitized and the oxygen blown out of them through various methods. However, unless they are painted, they cannot completely block out the light. Cans, however, eliminate this issue. They also reduce shipping costs, are more travel-friendly (camping, fishing, etc), and don’t pose the risk of breakage.

    Some of the disadvantages include the thin aluminium’s inability to hold pressure when shipped between altitudes (thus one reason OB is opening a location closer to sea level) and the question about how well a beer will cellar in a can.

    So – as far as I can see – the largely superior beverage container of cans will be best for beers intended to be consumed within 3-12 months, and not shipped from a high altitute to a significantly lower one. However, bottles will continue to hold the higher gravity brews, the beers meant for aging, and those that are being sent hither-and-thither.

    (And for those can haters: NBB Fat Tire in a can tastes far more like the original recipe than the one in a bottle because of the light pollution. My parents, who have been drinking New Belgium since they opened, even preferred the canned version over several blind – because I’m sneaky – taste tests).

    • Zowzers says:

      You’ll also get some oxygen leakage through the poly seal in the cap (osmosis works), leading to the eventual oxidation of the beer. You don’t get that with cans.

      • Miss Dev (The Beer Sherpa) says:

        And it’s the precise oxydization that allows beers in glass bottles to be aged.

  15. c_c says:

    You can get a lot of great beers in cans out here in Colorado – New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Avery, Ska Brewing, Upslope, etc. I think it has a lot to do w/ the outdoor culture; canned beer is very convenient to throw in your backpack when skiing and whatnot!

  16. ibuystuff_too_99 says:

    I love the resurgence of cans for many reasons, but they contain BPA as a liner (which is why they don’t flavor the beer) and that sucks. Do a search on “BPA beer cans” and you’ll see that this is a serious concern. I’ll probably still buy my beer mostly in glass. The only cans I’ll be buying will be measured in fractions of a barrel.

  17. idx says:

    Cans now are lined. They’re actually a lot more like a keg than they are like cans of old.

  18. some.nerd says:

    Give me a can of Blatz any day!

  19. psyonn says:

    There is also the a cash outlay issue for small craft breweries. The minimum piece order for glass is much higher than bottles (which do cost less per can). Last time I talked to the owner of NE brewery, he stated as much. It costs less to buy the cans, at a lower minimum order; and, they take up less space in the brewery. Canning equipment is also cheaper than bottling equipment. He did go on about modern cans (per: josephblospeh) being better anyway….

  20. ret3 says:

    And now I want a Ten Fidy. And maybe a CoCoNut Porter.

  21. Warren - aka The Piddler on the Roof says:

    Give it a few more years and they’ll be selling beer in plastic bags to cut down on packaging costs. Gotta keep the stockholders happy!

  22. Stiv says:

    This is a boon for us who aren’t allowed to bring glass bottles to the park or lake.

  23. gman863 says:

    Budweiser, six pack 12-ounce cans: $6.00
    Budweiser, six pack 12-ounce bottles: $6.80
    Budweiser fancy 12-ounce bottle shaped cans: $8.00

    Each 12-ounce serving will give you an equal buzz. In a tight economy, the Homer Simpsons of America have done the math on how to get more beer for less bucks.

    I’d also like to see a comparison of market share between rot-gut (Old Milwaukee, Walgreen’s house brand), mainstream (Bud, Coors, etc.) and upper end/microbrew (Sam Adams, Fat Tire, etc.). I wonder how much of a hit higher-end (“snob”) beer has taken over the past few years as more people try to get their beer buzz on the cheap.

    • rdaex says:

      Youre assuming that craft beer is imbibed with the INTENT to get drunk.
      I buy good beer because I enjoy good beer.. if I want to get drunk, I get a couple of whiskey drinks and call it a day.

    • Riroon13 says:

      I think you have your stats wrong. The only bud/ bud light aluminum bottles are in the 16-oz variety. I’ve never seen 12s.

      A better observation is this:

      At my supermarket, 12 of the 8oz ‘Azulita’ Bud Lights in cans are $5.80.
      Six of the 16 oz beers in cans are $6.80.

      A dollar can be saved on the same amount, and you can feel like Andre the Giant while pounding them.

      …..

      Side note: Bud light in aluminum bottles are AWESOME! I usually will take a microbrew (Abita Purple Haze or Andygator) over anything, but if where I go doesn’t have my brand and they have the Bud Light aluminum bottles, I’m a happy boy.

  24. finbar says:

    I’ve had the Sierra Nevada pale ale and torpedo in tall cans. Tastes fine and the tall cans are easier to transport via bicycle (they fit in the bike trunk, bottles don’t).

  25. dangermike says:

    I have a feeling the prevalence of canned beer sales is due to the fact that canned beers are so much less expensive to buy. With 10+% unemployment, why blow $10 on 6 bottles of craft beer when you can get a 30 cans of swill for the same amount. Even when you consider the 17-18 shots of liquor in a standard fifth, the cans of swill offer the most ethanol per dollar unless you’re willing to risk your eyesight on the floor-cleaner-grade stuff from the bottom shelves.

    • c_c says:

      RTA

      “He says that the recession has seen people turning to both “below-premium budget beers and the high-end craft beers.”

      Also, some higher-end brewers have begun putting their product in cans, which have historically been frowned upon by beer snobs.”

      Canned craft-beer still costs the same as bottled craft beer (for the most part).

      • dangermike says:

        This is consumerist. Nobody reads articles.

        Anyway, yeah, it’s pretty much like I said. All it takes is a trip down the aisles at bevmo where it can be anecdotally proven that the only non-crappy canned beer is from hawaii. Every other good beer is in bottles. The observed trend is not of microbrewies moving to canned packaging but rather the pissy economy moving drinkers with a purpose toward inferior goods.

  26. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    “In my youth, canned beer was king…”

    In my Canadian youth stubby bottle beer was king.

  27. Snip says:

    Tecate tastes better in a can.

  28. Tombo says:

    I’m just the opposite. I’ve been drinking out of a can since I got sick of lugging out a bag full of noisy, clanky, heavy bottles to the curb. Bottled American beer also tastes funky to me.

    Cans also are much easier to store and lug around. You can bring cans where you can’t bring bottles (like the beach). You can’t shotgun a bottle. You can dump a case full of cans in a cooler without worrying about them breaking. Cans make better ashtrays. If you drop a can on a tile floor, it has a better chance of surviving. A coozie for a can is way easier to operate than a coozie for a bottle. Cans stack with our without the box. A can’s opener stays attached. Cans are easily squishable after use for the trash. Cans are way easier to get out of the box. You can cook a chicken with a can. You can use a can for target practice without booby trapping your land with glass shards. You can throw empty cans at your friends without them needing immediate medical attention. You can demonstrate the effectiveness of the Gin-Su knife with a can. The wide mouth cans work pretty well.

  29. DariusC says:

    What’s wrong with Rolling Rock? *Throws another in recycling bin*