Canned beer used to be the bad beer your dad drank while he mowed the lawn. But with more craft breweries offering canned versions of their beers and breweries opening up that are 100% dedicated to canning, the craft beer industry shattered this stereotype has been. Today, it’s easy to find well-crafted, flavorful beer in cans.
Cans make sense as a beer container: they’re impenetrable to flavor-killing light, recyclable, and easier to pack into a cooler than bottles. On top of these characteristics, new advancements in can technology mean that aluminum keeps your beer fresher for longer. It all seems perfect on the surface, but there’s a controversial subtext within canned craft beer culture.
The biggest obstacle in changing the general opinion on canned beer was getting rid of the thought that beer in a can is going to taste like metal. With modern aluminum cans, however, the contents never actually touch the can, thanks to a polymer liner that coats the inner surface. As long as you pour the beer into a glass (or red plastic cup) to drink it, there’s no way for the metal to influence the taste. The big issue with cans, however, lies directly in this solution.
The can-liners are made of a polymer hardened by the much-maligned compound bisphenol-A (BPA for short). This stuff is everywhere—in soda cans, soup containers, water bottles; basically anything made with hard plastic. It received a lot of negative press after it was shown to induce cancer in mice in relatively low concentrations. At the time, baby bottles were made with BPA, and studies showed that the constant heating and re-filling actually caused the chemical to diffuse out of the walls and into the contents at alarming rates.
In 2008, the FDA declared that BPA is safe for human consumption, but in a suspicious turn of events two years later, they began to release statements implicating BPA in brain disorders, behavior problems, and child development issues, eventually leading to a formal ban on BPA in baby bottles last year. Sounds scary, right? So why hasn’t the FDA banned BPA from all food and drink containers?
FDA statements and reports say that the evidence suggests that companies can use the substance safely. When kept at relatively cool temperatures and not re-used many times, containers only leach tiny volumes of BPA into the substances they hold. The FDA and other food safety institutions have determined that things like soda, bottled water, canned food, and beer contain quantities of BPA far less than levels thought to be toxic. Even with these statements, consumers are wary of the dangers of BPA. The fact that the FDA formally banned BPA in one application but supports its healthy use in other areas certainly doesn’t help.
In light of the public outcry over BPA, brewers face tough questions about the safety of canned beer. “Unfortunately, a few brewers seem to focus on whatever side of the argument justifies their choices,” says Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at Sly Fox Brewing Company. The shroud of uncertainty around BPA allows brewers this freedom.
Oskar Blues Brewing Company, who exclusively can their beer, point to the lack of substantial evidence deeming BPA toxic and re-direct inquiries about its safety to the fact that much research is going in to development of BPA-free cans. Brewers that both can and bottle their beer have a somewhat different approach. As New Belgium brewing company puts it, they allow consumers the ability to choose their own level of acceptable risk. Basically, they avoid the issue all together by putting the decision in the hands of the beer drinker.
This isn’t the only decision being placed on the world’s craft beer lovers. A multitude of different beer styles are finding their way into aluminum. Just as in the wine-world, certain beer styles capable of developing over years of aging after being packaged. Imperial stouts, barleywines, and wild-fermented ales are frequently placed into cellars for years and years to allow the flavors to mature. For canned examples of these ageable ales, this means years of direct contact with can-liners. To date, no studies have been undertaken to determine whether or not the aging of canned beer is safe.
For me, I’m drinking my canned beer as fresh as possible. I’m not willing to take on the risk of exposing myself to high levels of a potentially hazardous material. For brewers, I’d recommend Sly Fox’s packaging scheme. They only can beer that should be consumed fresh, putting everything else in corked bottles. Though once again, New Belgium’s statements ring true. It’s really up to the consumer. Age it if you want, it’s your decision, your risk.
Unfortunately, there is one more catch in this whole conflict. BPA is harder to avoid for beer-drinkers than it seems. Ever notice how the bottle-caps on beer bottles have a plastic seal inside the crown? Well, guess what, it’s BPA-hardened epoxy, the same material in can-liners. Reputable retailers will only store their beer upright do to flavor concerns, so really this BPA shouldn’t be an issue. If you’re an anti-BPA advocate, however, this puts a lot of trust in the breweries and retailers. You’re going to have to settle for only drinking beer on draft (kegs are either stainless steel or BPA-free plastic and don’t need liners) or out of corked and caged bottles if you truly want to avoid BPA when it comes to beer.
So, if it’s too tough to avoid it entirely, the only option is to work with it. We know that the amount of BPA in cans and bottles of properly stored beer is well below the level believed to be hazardous. Until more long-term studies better detail the lasting effects of BPA exposure, this is all we have to reference. The bottom line then: buy from brewers and vendors you trust, keep your beer cool, and if it’s in a can, drink it fresh. Really, these are all things you should have been doing anyway. So quit worrying about BPA and have a beer.
The American pale ale, with its emphasis on fresh hop flavors, is the one style most suited to the benefits of canning. Here are my picks for some of the top American pale ales and India pale ales you’ll find in a can.
Bitter American, 21st Amendment Brewing Company
San Francisco, California. 4.4% ABV. $10 for a 6-pack
Just like the space-monkey pictured on the label, Bitter American is a weight-less take on a traditional American Pale Ale. With a nice blend of floral hops and biscuity malts, this is a perfect light-bodied beer to fill up a cooler with and take just about anywhere.
Daisy Cutter Pale Ale, Half Acre Beer Company
Chicago, Illinois. 5.2% ABV. $9 for a 4-pack of tall cans
It’s all in the name with Daisy Cutter. Fresh white flowers jump out of the glass and onto your taste buds followed by juicy pineapple and mango all drizzled with orange juice. It’s aggressive and full-flavored but still feels light and sophisticated thanks to a well-crafted slender body.
Caldera IPA, Caldera Brewing Company
Ashland, Oregon. 6.1% ABV. $11 for a 6-pack
Imagine walking through the pine forests of Oregon, grabbing a handful of pine needles, squeezing a lemon over them, and taking a big bite. This probably isn’t too far off from the taste of Caldera’s flagship ale, a big and bitter IPA that packs a fresh pine punch.
Jai Alai IPA, Cigar City Brewing Company
Tampa, Florida. 7.5% ABV. $15 for a 6-pack
Cigar City is one of the most experimental American breweries and it shows even in their standard IPA. There’s a distinct note of mouth-watering peach and apricot running through Jai Alai that shines over the typical tropical fruit flavors. All this fruit is held together nicely with aromatic pine and bread-crust malts in the background.
Odyssey Imperial IPA, Sly Fox Brewing Company
Pottstown, Pennsylvania. 8.4% ABV. $11 for a 6-pack
Sly Fox were one of the pioneers of the canned craft movement and just recently began putting their big and boozy double IPA into aluminum, but this is far from your typical example of the style. With an elegantly structured malt backbone married to soapy pine needle hops, there’s far more balance here than most imperial pale ales dream about.
Heady Topper, The Alchemist
Waterbury, Vermont. 8.0% ABV. $12 for a 4-pack of tall cans
The Alchemist currently makes one of the world’s most sought-after and talked about beers out of a small house-like building nestled in the mountains of Northern Vermont. And they put it in a can. This double IPA hits you first with the smell of perfectly ripe, juicy mango then assaults your palate with an endless cascade of tropical fruit flavor. Balanced out by a bit of flaky pastry and sharp citrus, Heady Topper is about as close to perfection in a can as you can get.