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Craft Beer Cans Kick Bottles in the Glass

Ever crack open a bottle of beer that smells and tastes past its prime?

That beer is probably "skunked," which will make it taste quite awful. (Beer nerd alert: "Skunked" or "light struck" beers occur when isomerized alpha acids imparted from hops get bombarded with ultraviolet radiation. That reaction produces unwanted flavors and aromas and generally creates an unsavory product.)

As any Floridian will be aware, light does all kinds of damage to anything it touches.

But what if there were a product that could prevent beer skunk in the first place?

Enter the humble, light-impervious aluminum can.

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Once relegated to mediocre adjunct lagers, the mighty aluminum can is seeing a spike in use among craft brewers because of its beer-saving properties. The past couple of years have seen solid increase in the number of breweries who have added canning lines to their facilities. Brewers such as Breckenridge, Avery, and Sierra Nevada are among the "big names" in the craft world who have started diversifying their product. On the local front, Intuition Ale Works in Jacksonville and Cigar City in Tampa have begun to can some of their beers.

Geiger Powell, media director at Cigar City, says the cans have been a big hit. "Sales are up quite a bit versus bottles this time last year. April was our biggest month ever for total sales."

So cans, at least for Cigar City, are a leading growth segment in craft brewing.

"The main benefit," Powell continues, "is that it's better for the beer, which is ultimately what we care about most. Cans prevent light from getting into the beer, which means they will last longer sitting on the shelves. And beyond that, cans are the perfect container for the Florida lifestyle: beaches, boating, hiking... cans go where bottles aren't allowed to go."

Watch the canning line in action below.

Brewers like cans, but what does science say on the debate?

Eric Allain, assistant professor of biochemistry at Appalachian State University, got into the nitty-gritty details with Wired about what's happening inside beer bottles.

"Certain light-sensitive compounds present in hops are the culprit of the skunky aroma which lead to the production of 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol (MBT). MBT has an extremely low flavor threshold and is very similar to the compound produced by skunks for defense.

"Amber bottles block much of the wavelengths of light that lead to this photoxidation, but green and clear bottles do not."

On the skunk front, it's clear that beer drinkers should stay away from clear and even green bottles. Amber seems to do the job well enough, and many breweries aren't going to be switching to full canning lines anytime soon.

Cans or bottles, it's ultimately your choice. Science points to cans, and tradition points to bottles. In either case, just remember that the best taste will come when poured into a proper glass.


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Doug Fairall
Contact: Doug Fairall

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