Among topics tirelessly debated by the craft beer community is the importance of packaging. Are cans better than bottles? Is draft beer superior to all? Is it even possible to answer these questions objectively given the sheer number of scientific and sentimental variables at play?
Like many things in beer and life, it all depends on whom you ask. On the one hand, beer is beer, says Ralph Marion, a bartender and brewer who runs the Instagram account @BeeredBlackMan. “When you’re making a beer, it all comes from the same batch. One batch isn’t going to be only for the cans or only for the kegs. They’re the same beer.”
Still, several factors affect how and why a draft pour might taste different from the same beer in a can or bottle, Marion says. Some are related to how the beer was packaged, others are more dynamic.
One consideration is how the bottles, cans and kegs of beer were treated by the stores and bars that sell and serve them.
“Bad beer rarely leaves the brewery,” says Steve Riley, certified cicerone and founder of BetterBeer.com. It’s on-premise, or in shops, bars and restaurants, where “a lot of things can go wrong,” he says.
For instance, many cans, bottles or kegs of beer have to travel across the country or around the world before they arrive in your local bar or bottle shop. If they’re delayed due to supply chain issues or old-fashioned human error, the beer you buy will taste less fresh than if you’d bought it within days of brewing, regardless of how it’s packaged.
“It’s a misconception that canned beer isn’t as good as bottle or even draft,” says Riley. “Everything just comes down to freshness. It’s not the package that it’s in. It’s the freshness and how it was maintained every step of the way.”
Heat and light degrade the flavors and aromas of a beer, explains Toni Boyce, certified cicerone and cofounder of BlaQ & Soul. While all packaging is susceptible to light and temperature damage, large, opaque kegs can shield beer from light, whereas “clear and green glass bottles don’t provide good protection from light and are susceptible to skunking,” says Boyce.
Even if a retailer, restaurant or bar aims to treat its beer right by storing it in a refrigerated walk-in, mistakes can be made.
“Everyone’s cooler is a little different,” says Marion. “Some of them are the exact temperatures they ought to be, and some of them ain’t shit. That can be really horrible for the beer, especially if you’re in a place somewhere here in Alabama, where we have very humid summers and it can get really hot.”
There are ephemeral factors that affect how you taste and experience a beer.
One advantage to draft beer over canned and bottled alternatives is real-time carbonation.
“With draft beer, there’s more of an ability to customize temperature and pressure, which are used to control the carbonation level of the beer and can affect the texture and mouthfeel of the pour,” says Boyce. “Gas blends can also be customized for draft beers, which allows for specialized serving techniques, such as nitro pours…[but] the amount of carbon dioxide in a bottle or can is fixed once it is packaged.”
Riley believes that draft beer tends to be fresher because “the whole nature of it is that it’s designed to be consumed quickly.”
Of course, if a bar has 100 beers on tap, it’s unlikely all those kegs were tapped at the same, recent hour. (Or, as Riley puts it, “the old 80:20 rule applies. 80% of their sales come from 20% of the taps.”) Those beers that are not in heavy rotation might result in stale or otherwise unsavory drafts.
Besides, any draft beer is only as good as the cleanliness of its draft lines.
“If draft lines and other draft system components are not properly cleaned and maintained, the taste of the beer served from the system will be negatively affected,” says Boyce. “This isn’t a problem with cans and bottles.”
These variables present a labyrinth of concerns for brewers, especially smaller operations with tiny margins, regardless of how they package their beers.
“The biggest problem for brewers is, whenever anybody has a beer and there’s something wrong with it, they blame the brewery,” says Riley. “If you go to a restaurant and they keep the kegs in the kitchen and don’t clean those lines as often as they should, and your pint doesn’t taste very good, you don’t blame the restaurant. You’re like, ‘I don’t want to try that beer again. That’s terrible.’ ”
The same is true of a canned beer that was mishandled by a retailer, he says. “If it’s been sitting on a shelf at room temperature for six months, it’s not going to taste as great [as it would fresh]. But you blame the brewer, even though it’s the retailer who doesn’t know any better.”
There are ephemeral factors that affect how you taste and experience a beer, too. If you’re at a bar or brewery drinking with friends and having a great time, you might be less critical of whether certain flavors seemed muted, or the lacing was imperfect. Conversely, if you’re trying to unwind with a tallboy on your couch after a long day, you might not care about whether the aluminum packaging masks some aromas.
“It’s a misconception that canned beer isn’t as good as bottle or even draft. Everything just comes down to freshness.”
And when you’re at a brewery, drinking beer straight from the source, all bets are off, says Marion. The beer is at its freshest and didn’t risk any mishandling during transport, plus you’re likely influenced by the environment.
“It’s the experience of everything,” says Marion. “It makes it feel better if you’re drinking a beer at the place it comes from.” He likens it to U.S. beer travelers who visit the Guinness brewery in Ireland and rave about the taste. “You can’t get that same experience sitting at home on your couch watching NFL on a Sunday,” he says.
Beer is beer, but it’s also so much more.